Morgan, Bateman, Johnson lead Gophers to 38-22 win at Northwestern

Rashod Bateman #13 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers makes a catch for a touchdown in front of Travis Whillock #7 of the Northwestern Wildcats during the first quarter at Ryan Field on November 23, 2019 in Evanston, Illinois. ((Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images))

There wasn’t about to be a letdown for the Gopher football team on Saturday at Northwestern after a tough loss at Iowa last week, and a showdown against rival Wisconsin with the Big Ten West Division title at stake next week.

Tanner Morgan was cleared to play Saturday after spending the week in the concussion protocol, and threw for 211 yards and four touchdowns as the Gophers improved to 10-1 with a 38-22 win over the Wildcats in Evanston. Morgan found Rashod Bateman for three touchdowns, and Tyler Johnson for another. Morgan also set a new record for touchdown passes in a single season with 26, eclipsing Adam Weber’s 25.

The Gophers’ defense, which showed some holes in the second half, limited Northwestern to 222 total yards, 95 passing yards and 13 first downs.

Minnesota controls its own destiny to win the Big Ten West Division. The Gophers will advance to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis with a win over Wisconsin next Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. That's after the Badgers beat Purdue 45-24 on Saturday to stay one game behind the Gophers in the division. Next Saturday's winner will face Ohio State, which clinched the Big Ten East title after beating Penn State 28-17.

But Saturday’s win at Northwestern, which marked the sixth 10-win season ever for the Gophers, was about the trio of Morgan, Bateman and Johnson. Morgan finished the day with 15 completions, and all but one of them went to either Bateman or Johnson. Bateman had seven catches for 78 yards and three touchdowns, while Johnson finished with seven catches for 125 yards and one touchdown. Johnson recorded his 30th career touchdown and is now one behind Ron Johnson for the all-time lead in program history.

Morgan hit Bateman for a 17-yard touchdown on Minnesota’s opening possession to give the Gophers an early 7-0 lead. Northwestern started the game with consecutive three-and-outs, and the Gophers took advantage. With the advantage of a short field, Shannon Brooks scored from nine yards out to give Minnesota a 14-0 lead.

It looked like a rout might be coming after Morgan hit Bateman for his second touchdown of the day on a 10-yard out. Bateman tip-toed the sideline and made the catch, giving the Gophers a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.

But a pair of Morgan mistakes, and Demetrius Douglas failing to catch a punt, led to nine Wildcats’ points to keep them in the game in the first half. Morgan was flagged for intentional grounding on a throw away in the end zone, a safety and two points for Northwestern. The Wildcats went 14 plays on their ensuing drive and capped it with Andrew Marty’s 9-yard touchdown to Jace James.

Seemingly still in control, the Gophers were up 21-9 at half.

Minnesota took the momentum back early in third quarter with an 11-play scoring drive to take a 28-9 lead. Bateman capped it with a 7-yard grab from Morgan, their third touchdown connection of the day.

Not to be forgotten was the Gophers’ rushing attack, which finished with 212 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Rodney Smith finished with 15 carries for 77 yards, Mohamed Ibrahim added 13 carries for 76 yards. Smith also went over 1,000 yards for the season.

Marty, Northwestern’s fourth quarterback option at the start of the season, capped a 15-play, 64-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to get the Wildcats within 28-16 in the third quarter.

The Gophers responded with a 10-play scoring drive to open the fourth quarter. Morgan capped it with a 17-yard touchdown to Johnson on a back shoulder throw at the front pylon, putting the Gophers up 35-16 with 13:20 to play.

Michael Lantz, who had missed the previous two games with an injury, added a 37-yard field goal with 6:14 left. Lantz was also a perfect 5-for-5 on extra point attempts.

The Gophers have now scored at least 28 points in 10 of their 11 games this season. Their only game under 20 was last week’s loss at Iowa.

The Gophers will celebrate the win, but not very long. It’s now the “Wisconsin Championship Season.” The Badgers come to Minneapolis next week in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, with ESPN's College GameDay coming to Dinkytown to see two teams go to battle for the Big Ten West title. The winner will face Ohio State in Indianapolis.

It doesn't get any better than a rivalry game to send a team to the Big Ten Championship.