After winning their 10th game of the year, the Gophers football team is having their best regular season since 1904. After last week's win against Northwestern, star wide receiver sophomore Rashod Bateman told us what started it all.
In P.J. Fleck's second year as head coach, the Gophers showed improvement, going 7-6 and winning three of their last four games of the season which was capped off by a 34-10 rout of Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. When the season was over back in January, quarterback Tanner Morgan led a players-only meeting to discuss how special the team could be in the upcoming season, Bateman said.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, Morgan was a key to the Gophers' success down the stretch, developing a rapport with wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. His opportunity came because then-true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad got hurt in the first half against Nebraska on Oct. 20. Morgan finished the year with 1,401 yards passing, nine touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Despite the Morgan's success, his job wasn't safe heading into his redshirt sophomore season. He had to win the it back in the offseason and was once again given the position after an Annexstad injury. Despite not being guaranteed the job, Morgan took on a leadership role immediately following the season.
“Just what our standard as team was, how we were going to attack it and get better each day," Morgan said about the topic of the meeting. "The standard is the standard and it’s not going anywhere, but it has to be led by the players. We talked about being a player-led team ... it has to be embodied by the players. We really had to go back and make sure the standard was set from our players and that we were all on the same page moving forward heading into the offseason.”
Morgan credits the leadership of defensive seniors Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin and Winston DeLattiboudere for helping him get the message across and providing guidance to the team, setting them up on the path to success that they built off of last year.
“Let’s make sure we were capitalizing off the time [we] had together as players," said Morgan of the meeting. "Not that we were wasting anybody’s time but to make sure that the message was clear."
There's no doubting the growth that Morgan has shown in his game since last year — he has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. But his development as a leader has also grown.
“It’s a lot different, a lot more confident,” Morgan said on the difference between leading the offense this time last year and now. “It just goes back to [offensive coordinator Kirk] Ciarrocca really just helping me out and helping me take that next right step as a player, coach Fleck with leadership stuff.”
From being a labeled a game manager last year to completely tearing apart that label with his play this year, Morgan has received high praise from his teammates and coaches.
"There's not a guy that comes in more energetic, passionate, excited about the opportunity to grow," Fleck said. "Whether he failed or whether he succeeded, there's not a guy that comes in more excited about that. When that's your leader, that's the quarterback, it goes back to when your best players are your hardest workers. That's infectious, that spreads to everybody. That's what Tanner has been able to provide for our team. Now everybody is catching on to that. That's infectious."
Morgan has parlayed that hard work ethic and positive attitude into success, as he's having the best season a quarterback has ever had at Minnesota. Morgan surpassed Adam Weber for the single-season touchdown mark of 24 last Saturday. He currently sits with 26 touchdown passes on the season with at least one more regular season game to go. Not to mention that Morgan will have plenty of opportunities to break his own record with two seasons of eligibility remaining after this year.
Morgan's continued success is one of the biggest reasons the team is able to control their destiny with a chance at the Big Ten West title, Big Ten Championship and a possible berth to the College Football Playoff.
"It's something you dream about as a kid, if you think about it," Morgan said. "You want to play in big-time games. I think all good competitors do. Everybody wants to play in games that carry weight and this game obviously does and we're extremely blessed to be able to be put in this situation. I love our team and our coaching staff and we're just going to prepare the best we can this week to go 1-0 in the Wisconsin championship season."