Nov. 6, 2021: After a week that saw Minnesota get ranked No. 20 in the initial CFP rankings, its four-game winning streak was snapped falling to Illinois 6-14.
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Full Game Recap:
- Pregame/injuries: With Bryce Williams officially ruled out for the season, PWO true-freshman Kendall Moore and Jordan Nubin joined Derik LeCaptain in the RB room. Fortunately for the Gophers that was the biggest injury news of note.
- First-Quarter: The Gophers’ offense looked to be rolling, but a Tanner Morgan INT tipped off the hands of a Minnesota receiver stalled the opening drive of the game. Illinois took advantage with a TD drive of its own, taking an early 7-0 lead. After allowing 92.9 rushing yards per game this season (8th best in NCAA), Illinois’ 87 in the first quarter was surprising, to say the least.
- Second-Quarter: While the Minnesota offense continued to struggle, Illinois continued to take advantage. A 15 yard TD to open the second quarter, extended the deficit to 14-0. The debacle only got worse, a 6-12 first half from Morgan and another missed Matthew Trickett kick left the deficit at 14 heading into the half.
- Third-Quarter: The third quarter was arguably the grossest 15 minutes of football that I have witnessed this season. A long Gophers offensive drive resulted in a turnover on downs, but Illinois wasn’t much better with two punts of its own. Overall it was much of the same, Morgan struggling and not much else.
- Fourth-Quarter: After an opening quarter punt for the Gophers, Illinois answered with one of its own. Minnesota finally got something going offensive, as Morgan began to find open receivers across the middle of the field. Morgan would finally get the Gophs’ on the board with a 1 yard TD run, but a Matthew Trickett missed extra point, made it a 6-14 deficit. After Minnesota forced a seventh consecutive punt, it had one last hurrah, but Morgan’s second interception of the day sealed the deal.
Instant Reaction & Takeaways:
I would say that this game shocked me, but the Gophers have had a glaring hole all season and they’ve done absolutely nothing to fix it. They have been one of the worst passing teams in the country, ranking 9th worst in the NCAA (147.8 yards per game). There certainly are not many ranked teams that are in that situation, especially top 20 teams. Illinois was the first team all season, that truly was able to make Tanner Morgan throw. And with his most pass attempts on the season (28), he was not able to find any success whatsoever. Illinois forced Minnesota to beat them at what it’s not good at, the Gophers’ 89 rushing yards were by far its lowest total of the season, and their flaws were dramatically highlighted.
Tanner Morgan certainly did not play well, but nobody on this offense did. After allowing one total sack since the Bowling Green game, allowing six against Illinois will certainly not look good for the offensive line. Morgan’s tendency to hold on to the ball for too long definitely did not help, but it was tough to find any positives at all from this offensive performance.
Defensively, it was a great bounce-back performance for the Gophers. After struggling early, they forced seven consecutive punts. There is really nothing to complain about on that side of the ball, they played 3 dominant quarters of football, while the offense failed to play any. Jack Gibbens and Boye Mafe both stood out as probably the two best Minnesota players today. For how well this defense has played it is criminal to be sitting with three losses, two of which came against Bowling Green and Illinois.
What is Next?:
Now sitting at 4-2 in the Big Ten West, believe it or not, Minnesota still controls its own destiny to go to the Big Ten Championship game. With games against both Wisconsin and Iowa (both having two conference losses) left on their schedule, there is no reason why this team cannot win out.
The biggest takeaway from this game is obviously the offensive performance, and where the Gophers go from here. I will never call for a coach to be fired, or demoted, but at the end of the day, coaches are supposed to put their players in positions to succeed. This offense is not putting Tanner Morgan in positions to succeed. Morgan is a quarterback that has never been great at throwing the deep ball, and Minnesota completed zero passes of 10 yards or fewer until the second-to-last drive of the game (which happened to be the only scoring drive of the day). In Morgan’s best game this season, he had seven completions of 10 yards or fewer against Nebraska. I think he would admit that he doesn’t have the arm talent to throw his WRs open, but this offense and Mike Sanford Jr. is asking him to do just that. Matt Simon did a fine job calling plays against Auburn, so giving the playcalling duties to him for one game might not be the end of the world.
Many will obviously call for Morgan to be benched, but I think that would be patching one whole in a boat with three or four of them. He clearly is not playing well, and benching him wouldn’t be outlandish, I just don’t know if it would accomplish much.
The game was downright terrible to watch, but this defense is still dominant. I hate to say it, but we have almost turned into Iowa or Wisconsin. When the running game is not on, this team is not on. When it is, this team is top-20 in the country. This defense will always keep the Gophers in games, and they have three more games left with the opportunity to still play in the Big Ten Championship on the table.