MINNEAPOLIS - The Gopher football team heads to Northwestern on Saturday looking to get one step closer to a Big Ten West title, but PJ Fleck doesn’t yet know who his starting quarterback will be.
Fleck said Tuesday Tanner Morgan is in the concussion protocol after being sacked twice during the Gophers’ final drive in Saturday’s 23-19 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Freshman Cole Kramer played the last two snaps in his absence, and was 0-for-2 with a game-sealing interception.
Before the injury, Morgan was 25-of-36 passing for 368 yards and a touchdown to Tyler Johnson, which opened the second half scoring for the Gophers.
"Making progress, but he’s in protocol and all that’s out of my hands. That’s up to our medical staff and our trainers, who are doing a great job. They did a great job on the sideline on Saturday as well, noticing him and making him go down," Fleck said.
After Morgan went down for the second time, he was wobbly and clinging to teammates to stay upright. He appeared to be trying to get a signal for the next play, when Fleck instructed him to go to the ground. Trainers on the sideline noticed he wasn't right.
Iowa fans were booing loudly, thinking Fleck was telling Morgan to fake an injury and stop the game clock in the final minute of regulation.
"A lot of people were sitting there telling me that I’m making him fake an injury, having a guy go down, I mean that’s ridiculous. Why would I want my starting quarterback to go down so he has to come out, so I have to put the true freshman in? That doesn’t make any sense," Fleck said. "I’m just glad everybody saw it and we could get him the help that he needed."
Morgan has been one of the biggest reasons Minnesota got off to its first 9-0 start since 1904 before losing at Kinnick Stadium. For the season, Morgan is completing 68 percent of his passes for more than 2,400 yards and 22 touchdowns, and just four interceptions. He's also one of the most efficient passers of the country, behind only three players who are in the Heisman Trophy conversation: Joe Burrow of LSU, Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, who is now out for the season after suffering a hip injury last week.
Fleck said Tuesday Morgan is “day to day,” and has to pass a series of concussion protocol tests before he can practice.
If Morgan can’t play, Fleck will have to decide between freshman Kramer and Jacob Clark as to who will start. Kramer has played in three games, including Iowa, and has just one game left before he would have to forfeit a redshirt year. Clark has played in just one game, completing one pass for 39 yards against Maryland.
Fleck said that decision will come down to who has a better week in practice, assuming Morgan can't go.
"Don’t know yet, whoever plays better in practice this week if it comes down to it. It’s a competition between Jacob and Cole, and they’re both getting better. They’re both working really hard, they’ve both made a ton of progress. We’re throwing a lot at them," Fleck said.
One thing is certain: Morgan will do everything he can to get himself on the field for Saturday. He lobbied to stay in the game at Iowa, and Fleck said it's a safe bet Morgan's patience will get tested this week as he progresses through the concussion protocol. All Morgan cares about is doing whatever it takes to win, but Fleck won't let it come at the expense of his quarterback's long-term health.
"He’s a competitor, that’s why it’s completely to the medical staff. Because he is such a competitor, he wants to get back out there, but the medical team’s got him and they’ll make the decisions for him," Fleck said. "Tanner is in the best hands possible, though. I know that for sure with our staff."
The Gophers (9-1, 6-1) can clinch the Big Ten West on Saturday with a win at Northwestern and a Wisconsin loss to Purdue. The more likely scenario is beating the Badgers in the regular season finale at TCF Bank Stadium, which would send the Gophers to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game.