Tanner Morgan says 'We have a lot of work to do' after beating South Dakota State

Gopher football coach PJ Fleck compared it Tuesday to a little kid keeping his hand on a hot stove too long.

Tanner Morgan, in his seventh collegiate start, was looking for Rashod Bateman on Minnesota’s second drive last Thursday night against South Dakota State. Morgan saw the double coverage, but tried to thread the needle to one of his top receivers anyway.

The result was Morgan’s first interception of 2019. It didn’t do long-term damage as the Jackrabbits had to punt on their ensuing possession, but he chalks it up as a first-game learning experience.

“I’ve just got to wait for the second window or move on. That safety made an elite play, made a great play. But personally I can’t give them the opportunity to make that play,” Morgan said Tuesday.

Fleck said Tuesday he didn’t know what his quarterback would tell him coming off the field after the interception.

“He said ‘I thought I could fit it in there.’ Now you know. But the one thing about Tanner is he responds really well. Tanner is really good at letting the play go, no matter what it was, good or bad. He’s got those intangibles, that’s what makes him very unique and very different,” Fleck said. “He just moves on, and that’s what you want out of your quarterback.”

Morgan didn’t have to worry about winning the quarterback job in fall camp after Zack Annexstad went down early with a non-contact foot injury that required surgery. He’s out indefinitely, and now Morgan’s main focus is winning games and getting better every day.

It was about the only mistake Morgan made in his 2019 debut. He finished 13-of-18 passing for 176 yards, the interception and a highlight reel touchdown to Bateman. That play went for 42 yards, and Bateman’s acrobatic 1-handed catch gave Minnesota a 13-7 lead at the half.

Fleck and the Gophers also got something out of Morgan rarely seen last season: Keeping the ball on the run-pass option. Morgan had five carries for 22 yards against the Jackrabbits, including a 14-yard gain up the middle.

If it can be done consistently, it will add another dimension to Minnesota’s offense and keep defenses honest.

“He’s effective enough and he’s smart enough to understand his reads and when he should pull it and when he should give it. I thought the one he pulled was perfect,” Fleck said. “He might only pull it 1 or 2 times, but he does it really effectively.”

Morgan is now 5-2 as a starting quarterback for the Gophers. He completed more than 58 percent of his passes last year, with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.

He was also sacked twice last Thursday, and the run game still needs work. Behind a massive offensive line, the Gophers ran 42 times for 132 yards. That’s 3.14 yards per carry, which they know won’t be good enough in Big Ten play.

It may not be good enough against their Week 2 opponent, Fresno State, on the road Saturday night. USC ran for 175 yards, and nearly five yards per carry, against the Bulldogs on Saturday.

“We’ve just got to continue to execute better. We left some meat on the bone as an offense, but there was some elite plays from the guys,” Morgan said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, we’ve got a lot of improvement to do as an offense.”

One bright spot for Fleck was Rodney Smith’s return. Smith, now a sixth-year senior, is jokingly called “Grandpa” by his teammates. He had 21 carries for 94 yards against the Jackrabbits. It was his first game back after a knee injury against Fresno State last season.

Fleck noticed during the team’s scrimmage in fall camp that Smith didn’t completely trust that his knee was 100 percent. He hesitated on certain cuts, and he didn’t run full speed. That all changed under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium last Thursday.

“When you look at where he was in the scrimmage to where he is now, it’s night and day,” Fleck said. “He had his burst back and that’s the biggest thing.”

Now that they’ve got a game under their belts, it’s about seeing tangible improvement week to week. Their other man focus is sticking to their job and not trying to do too much outside of their roles.

“Guys are going to play with extreme how on this team, that’s just how we’re taught. There’s guys that were trying to do too much, and we just gotta continue to do our jobs and do what we do best,” Morgan said.