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Minnesota Football: Shut down by Iowa, Gophers’ offense looks to get back in rhythm

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Minnesota’s offense is hoping for a different result against Purdue

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The first question Tanner Morgan faced the Monday after the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 35-7 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday night was about his confidence.

The Gophers’ third-year starter at quarterback is coming off one of the worst games of his career. Against the Hawkeyes, Morgan completed less than 50 percent of his passes, threw two interceptions, and was sacked four times. But when asked if his struggles have shaken his confidence, Morgan made it clear his oar remains firmly in the water. The result on Friday night was not what they wanted it to be, but he is focused on the process.

“I think there’s a lot of things that obviously I have to do better, because everything runs through me. So for us to be better, I have to be better, and I will be,” Morgan said. “Moving forward, we just have to continue to work on the details and do what we do.”

It has certainly been a slow start to the season for Morgan and co. His completion percentage is down to 58.6% compared to 66% a season ago, he is averaging 58 fewer passing yards per game than last season, and he has as many touchdown passes (4) as interceptions (4).

“It comes down to execution. It’s not like we’re doing a bunch of different things,” he explained. “We just have to execute better. It sounds silly, it sounds simple, but it’s really the small details and the little things that really help you to have success.”

Coming into the Iowa game, the Gophers’ offense was averaging 36.3 points per game, 238.6 rushing yards per game, and 200.6 passing yards per game. The Hawkeyes’ defense stifled them in every aspect, but nowhere more so than on the scoreboard. Minnesota was held scoreless until a touchdown pass to Rashod Bateman with 14 seconds left in regulation.

Minnesota offensive co-coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. cited a lack of efficiency on early downs and an inability to finish drives as the offense’s primary pain points against Iowa. The Gophers’ ground game averaged 4.8 yards per carry on first downs, but Morgan was 6-of-12 on first down and Minnesota also allowed a sack and was penalized twice for holding at the start of a fresh set of downs. The Gophers made three trips inside the red zone, one ending in a blocked field goal and another in an interception before finally finding the end zone on their third try.

Above all, Sanford said it was obvious, whether you were watching from home or from the coaches box, that the offense was never able to get into a rhythm.

“If there’s one thing I felt like the Iowa game lacked, it was a rhythm,” he said. “As a play-caller, you do everything you can to get into a rhythm. And to get into the optimal rhythm, it involves getting multiple people involved in it, to be able to utilize multiple weapons and different aspects of your passing attack and your run game. And we weren’t able to effectively do that.”

Spreading the ball around has been especially difficult for Minnesota in recent weeks. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim leads the Big Ten in rushing yards but is averaging 32.5 carries per game, and neither Trey Potts nor Cam Wiley recorded a carry against Iowa. Rashod Bateman has accounted for 54% of the team’s receptions and 65% of the team’s receiving yards in their last two games. No other receiver on the roster even has double-digit receptions this season.

Sanford stresses the importance of sharing the wealth, but also warns that it is a balancing act when you have a talent like Bateman in your receiving corps. Too many receptions and people can start to wonder if you are neglecting the other weapons in your arsenal. Too few receptions and people start to question why you aren’t utilizing your best wide receiver more.

“The good thing is that if you’ve built up tendencies to get [Bateman] the football, it gives guys other opportunities to shine and we saw that in Week 2 against Maryland with Chris [Autman-Bell],” he said, referencing Autman-Bell’s four receptions, 112 receiving yards, and one touchdown reception in the Gophers’ 45-44 overtime loss to the Terrapins. “When they’ve been given opportunities, they’ve made plays, and they gotta continue to get opportunities.”

We will see if more opportunities materialize against Purdue on Friday night.