After their first loss of the season to Iowa last week, Minnesota silenced critics who questioned their ability to bounce back as they recovered with a strong win on the road Saturday against the Northwestern Wildcats, 38-22.
"I'm really proud of our players responding," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "They wanted to get that taste out of their mouth so bad. They showed us that on Sunday. We had one of our best Sundays we've had in a long time."
After being in concussion protocol all week, Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan was announced as active before the game and didn't show signs of lingering effects. Morgan threw four touchdown passes, giving him 26 on the season — the most in school history.
“It’s cool. There’s been a lot of great quarterbacks, a lot of great teams come through this university,” Morgan said about breaking the record. “That's not just a Tanner Morgan thing, that's a coach Ciarrocca, that's an offensive line, receivers, running backs, it's not just an individual thing at all."
Minnesota's offense scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, dominating through the air and the ground as the defense allowed only five total yards on the Wildcats' first three possessions.
"We knew from last game we had to start fast in order for us to win games," redshirt sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said.
On Minnesota's first possession of the game Morgan found sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who made a toe-tapping catch in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown reception.
“Unreal,” Morgan said about the catch. “First the guy was able to get open [and] create space, but the little toe tap like a ballerina, it was awesome for him to be able to show that and do that and stay in and put points up on the board for us.”
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Sam Renner sacked Northwestern's quarterback Hunter Johnson for a nine-yard loss on the second play of Northwestern's ensuing drive, halting any Wildcats offense and resulting in a punt back to the Gophers.
Minnesota needed a little less than two minutes to go 45 yards for a touchdown. Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 34 of the 45 yards and Brooks would cap the drive off with nine-yard touchdown run.
On Minnesota's next possession, Morgan and receiver Tyler Johnson completed one of the prettiest catches all season. As Johnson beat his defender to start the play, Morgan threw an over-the-shoulder pass 26 yards down the sideline to Johnson to put the Gophers in the red zone. Three plays later, Morgan found Bateman for a 10-yard touchdown pass to give the Gophers a 21-0 lead.
After building a decisive lead over the Wildcats only a few minutes into the second quarter, the Gophers slipped up in their play. After running the score up 21-0, Morgan was called for an intentional grounding in the end zone resulting in a safety and giving Northwestern its first 2 points of the game.
After receiving the punt following the safety, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald turned to sophomore quarterback Andrew Marty, who would drive the Wildcats 69 yards for a touchdown. Marty found sophomore wide receiver Jace James for a nine-yard touchdown pass which cut Minnesota's lead to 21-9 heading into halftime.
“The quarterback wrinkle that they had, we hadn’t prepared a lot for,” Fleck said. “We had to adjust a lot of that game plan on the sideline.”
On the Gophers' first possession of the second half, they found the end zone again. Morgan once again found Bateman for their third touchdown connection of the day on a seven-yard back shoulder pass, extending the lead to 28-9.
Northwestern responded as they tried to dig themselves out of a hole. The Wildcats drove 64 yards, taking over six minutes off the clock and finishing the drive with a two-yard touchdown rush from Marty.
Looking to put the game away and extend their lead, the Gophers took a little over five minutes off the clock in their next possession. With Bateman coming off the field due to an injury, Minnesota was facing a third-and-3 just inside the red zone at the Wildcat 17-yard line. Morgan looked to Johnson, who made an eye-popping 17-yard touchdown grab to give the Gophers a 35-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, effectively sealing the game.
Johnson's touchdown grab was the 30th of his career, one away from tying Ron Johnson for the University of Minnesota record of 31. The star receiver finished the game with seven receptions for 125 yards to go along with the touchdown.
Both Bateman and Johnson eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving on the season, the first time in program history that the team has had a pair of receivers over the 1,000 yard mark in the same season.
“In my opinion I think he’s the best receiver in the country,” Fleck said about Bateman. “I think 1B would be Tyler Johnson. 1A, 1B they’re together. We have two 1,000 yard receivers, they both complement each other.”
This win is the Gophers seventh in Big Ten play, the most in program history. The 10-win regular season is the first time that has happened since 1905 and Minnesota will play Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium next week in a game that will decide the Big Ten West division.
"We know we have great opponent ahead of us and we just have to go ahead and go to work this week during practice," said Winfield.