As the band Queen sings in their well-known song "Bohemian Rhapsody," “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
Gophers fans, this is no fantasy — this is real life. October is coming to an end, and the Gophers football team has yet to lose a game thus far, sitting with a record of 8-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country. That ranking is the highest the Gophers have been in the AP Polls in nearly 20 years. The program has won their last 10 games dating back to last year and are 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in 58 years.
Last year, the Gophers finished 7-6 in the regular season after adding a bowl game victory, beating Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. It was a vast improvement for the program after finishing 2017 with a 2-7 record in the Big Ten. Despite the improvement in Fleck’s second year, expectations remained subdued, but through eight games this season, those expectations have taken flight.
So, how has it happened? Let's examine several factors:
The emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan
Despite leading the Gophers to a bowl game win last year after taking over for an injured Zack Annexstad, Morgan still had to fight for his job this summer and only emerged as the clear starter after Annexstad was sidelined again with an injury.
The redshirt sophomore isn’t going to wow opponents with incredible athleticism or arm strength. However, Morgan has been able to facilitate the offense effectively, bouncing back when he has had bad starts and giving the Gophers opportunities to win.
After eight games, Morgan ranks seventh in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 180.5. On the season, Morgan has completed 65.3 percent of his passes and has 1,761 yards with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. Morgan is providing a stability to the quarterback position that the Gophers haven’t had since Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who graduated in 2003. That year, Abdul-Khaliq finished with a 63.2 completion percentage, 2401 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Rashod Bateman, wide receiver No. 1
Coming into the season, much of the talk surrounding the Gophers skill players was centered around senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson, and for good reason. Johnson finished his junior year with 78 catches, 1169 yards and 12 touchdowns. His play left questions about whether he would opt to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft, but ultimately Johnson came back for one more year to obtain his degree. With Johnson receiving increased attention this year, the Gophers needed one of their young receivers to step up, and that is exactly what Bateman has done.
In his first year at Minnesota in 2018, Bateman had 51 receptions for 704 yards receiving, both Gophers records for a freshman, and he had six touchdowns receiving. Bateman has only improved this year, almost matching the numbers he had last year. Through eight games this season, he has 31 receptions for 644 yards receiving and six touchdowns. Bateman has given the Gophers a second No. 1 option as his talent continues to develop.
A healthy stable of running backs
Health was not a strong point of the Gophers' backfield last season. After significant injuries plagued star running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, the Gophers were forced to rely on freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, who stepped up to the challenge by rushing for over 1,000 yards.
This year, the run game got off to a slow start. Until the fifth game of the season against Illinois, the Gophers' backfield hadn't had a game averaging over five yards per carry. Smith got going against Purdue, and has now gone five straight weeks with over 100 yards rushing.
The rushing attack has also been aided by the return of Brooks. Brooks has suited up for the last five games after returning from three significant ACL injuries. In three of the five games, Brooks has received at least 10 rushing attempts, averaging 6.82 yards per carry in those games.
Ibrahim has played in five games thus far and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The three running backs have created a formidable trio to go along with Morgan and the receiving corps.
The continued improvement of the defense
The Gophers defense has found their stride after a shaky start to the season, when they gave up almost 30 points per game through the first four games. Over the last four games, the defense has held opposing offenses to just 27 points total.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has engineered the defensive turnaround. The Gophers are 11-1 since Rossi took over for the struggling Robb Smith.
It’s not just the coaching. There have been many players that have stepped up for Minnesota, none more than redshirt sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. As the Gophers head into the bye, Winfield is tied for No. 2 in the nation with five interceptions. After being lost for the season the last two years due to significant injury, Winfield is solidifying the back end of the defense. The defense ranks No. 22 in the nation in turnovers forced.
They rank as the No. 27 rush defense, only giving up 3.61 yards per carry and 117.4 yards per game to opposing backs. They have been even stronger defending the pass, ranking No. 9 in the country and giving up 166.4 yards per game. The emergence of redshirt junior defensive back Coney Durr, who is finally healthy after tearing his ACL a few years ago, and redshirt senior Chris Williamson has made this Gophers' pass defense one of the best in the nation.
The Gophers' biggest challenge of the season awaits them on the other side of the bye week, as they host No. 6 Penn State on Nov. 9 at 11 a.m.