MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck was walking off the field Saturday night, ready to celebrate with his team after the Gophers opened the Big Ten season with a 38-31 win at Purdue.
He left the field with his quarterback, redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan, fresh off career-highs with 396 yards, four touchdowns and completing 95.5 percent of his passes. The completion rate is the highest in the history of the Big Ten with at least 20 passes attempted.
Morgan told his head coach, “I can be better.”
“I said hold on, I have to tell you that. You don’t tell me that right after the game. That’s for Sunday, let’s celebrate now. But that’s the way our players are thinking, they constantly go back to what we can do better. That’s the focus of the program,” Fleck said.
Morgan was named the Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week on Monday as he improved to 8-2 as the Gophers’ starting quarterback, dating back to when he took over for the injured Zack Annexstad last season. In four games this season, Morgan is completing 73.4 percent of his passes for 1,095 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just two interceptions.
He did lose a fumble that was run back for a touchdown against Georgia Southern before the Gophers rallied for a win. But he also helped lead touchdown drives that got Minnesota wins over South Dakota State, Georgia Southern and forced overtime at Fresno State before they came out with a 35-32 win.
For now, Morgan is blocking out the accolades that come with his on-field success.
“Just don’t really listen to it. I know it doesn’t really affect me. One week people could say you’re the best, the next week they could say you’re the worst. What matters to us is our four walls. The people inside of our program, our team,” Morgan said. “I don’t play for individual awards like that, I play for my teammates, and to worship and glorify God in every way I can do in anything I can do.”
The first thing he thinks of is finding a way to improve his game and help his teammates get better. He points out making better protection calls at the line of scrimmage, and finding ways to improve his pocket presence.
Fleck and Morgan go back at least five years, when the now Gophers’ coach was recruiting him to lead the offense at Western Michigan. Not long after leading that program to a 13-0 regular season and hard-fought loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, Mark Coyle and Minnesota came calling with an offer.
Fleck brought his “Row the Boat” mantra to Minnesota, and one of his first calls after accepting the job was to Morgan. The Kentucky native never visited Minnesota before becoming a Gopher. He didn’t consult his parents, he didn’t feel the need to. As long as Fleck was his coach, he was all-in on the Gophers.
Fleck labels Morgan “a winner,” and it’s why he recruited him. He led his Kentucky high school to a 12-1 record as a senior and an appearance in the state quarterfinals. The Gophers haven’t won a championship in 52 years, something Fleck hopes changes sooner rather than later. It might come with Morgan leading the offense.
“It needs somebody who’s been there and done that because it’s not easy to do. Everything is going to tell you why you can’t do it, and you have to have enough confidence to know why you can do it when everyone else is saying here is why you won’t. I think that’s what the intangible part of him and why it sets his intangible part from other people at times is he has a lot of confidence in himself, he’s deep in his faith, he plays for more than just himself,” Fleck said. “Life is way bigger than Tanner Morgan and he knows that, and he constantly wants to be better every single day and he makes everybody else around him better. When you have somebody like that, it’s infectious and it’s real.”
One of Morgan’s greatest attributes is his ability to stay in the moment. He doesn’t celebrate the big plays or the wins very long. He doesn’t dwell on the turnovers or the losses. He moves on, and focuses on the next play or the next game.
As Fleck has always put it, “failure is growth.”
“I know we talk about failing is growth a lot, but if you continue to fail and fail over and over again, you’re going to set yourself up for success down the road,” Morgan said. “I’ve failed a lot in my life, failed a lot in my career and I’m going to continue to fail. But it sets you up for success.”