Tasked with breaking down a strong Penn State defense that averaged 68.4 rushing yards per game going in to Saturday, it seemed likely Minnesota would need production from their passing attack to prevail with a victory.
On that front, quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman delivered in spades as then-No. 13 Minnesota (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) defeated then-No. 5 Penn State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) 31-26 in front of a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium. Both sophomores had arguably their best afternoon with the Gophers in the most important game of their careers to date.
"We just knew coming into this game we were going to have to attack on the outside," Bateman said. "I think we went out there and executed well."
On the Gophers' opening drive, Morgan completed two passes to Bateman. The first of those completions gained 15 yards. Two plays later, Morgan spotted a wide-open Bateman along the side line. After making the catch, Bateman broke a tackle and raced 66 yards to the end zone for the game's first score.
"I almost threw it a little too high," Morgan said. "The safety almost smoked [Bateman], but he caught it, stayed cool under pressure and he made the play. That's what Rashod does."
Following a game-tying Penn State touchdown, Minnesota took over on their next drive, and Morgan quickly hit Bateman and senior Tyler Johnson for gains of 28 and 18 yards. Minnesota then ran the ball on six consecutive plays before Morgan threw a tunnel screen to redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell on third-and-3. Autman-Bell proceeded to maneuver through the Nittany Lions' defense for a 21-yard score.
Morgan completed all six of his first-quarter attempts before first incompletion of the game came in second quarter. That misfire incurred a Minnesota punt but Morgan came right back on his next drive with a 22-yard completion to Bateman and then a 38-yard touchdown to Johnson which pushed the lead to 21-10.
At halftime, Morgan's stat-line read 10-12 passing for 240 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. When the Gophers ran into the locker room with a 24-13 advantage, his quarterback rating sat at 333.8.
"He's special," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "He knows how to take programs from where they are and take them to where they always wanted to be. He's a winner."
Late in the third quarter, Penn State had cut the Minnesota lead to 24-13 and the offense needed a drive to give an exhausted defense some rest. That's when Morgan turned back to his favorite target, Bateman. The two connected for 23 yards on a second-and-12 and 36 yards on a third-and-9, the latter of which set up a one-yard touchdown plunge from redshirt junior Seth Green, which proved to be the decisive score.
"It's a really good feeling," Morgan said of Bateman. "The guy just gets open and all you have to do is put it in his area, he's going to make a play."
Bateman's performance on Saturday etched his name in the Minnesota record books. Recording 203 yards on 7 receptions, Bateman set a TCF Bank Stadium record for most receiving yards in a game.
"It's special, but I didn't do it alone," Bateman said. "I did it with [Morgan], I did it with my offensive line, I did it with the coaching staff, I did it with the whole Minnesota football team. So I give all the credit to those guys."
To his credit, Morgan passed for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Completing 18 of 20 attempts, Morgan's quarterback rating finished at 281.9 on the afternoon.
"He did a great job," redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr said. "Tanner is one of those players you love playing with and playing for. He's a great leader on this team and he showed that today with his play."
With the victory, Minnesota is one step close to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. The team says tomorrow their focus will turn to their upcoming opponent, Iowa, but the Gophers made sure to enjoy Saturday's victory, especially when fans stormed the field after the final whistle.
"Just seeing the stadium and how much it meant to the fans was really cool," Morgan said. "When they rushed the field, that's a moment I'll never forget."