The Gophers’ struggles in non-conference play last season were frequently used as evidence that they were not as good as their record. Me? I approach the non-conference slate with a single objective: Survive. And Minnesota did exactly that, collecting narrow wins over South Dakota State, Fresno State, and Georgia Southern that paved the way for a 9-0 start to the season.
I’d be lying if I said the stress-inducing nature of those three victories didn’t feel like cause for concern at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight — and an 11-win season under out belt — we can now appreciate those games for what they were: Growing pains.
None more so than the Georgia Southern game.
It was a near tragedy of errors for the Gophers. If you’ll recall, 28 of the Eagles’ 32 points in that game were the result of self-inflicted mistakes from Minnesota. There was Tanner Morgan’s interception on the second play of the game, which set up Georgia Southern inside the red zone. There was the Gophers’ failed fourth down conversion at their own 34-yard line. And who can forget the blocked field goal that was returned 77 yards for a touchdown.
But Minnesota seemed to have saved the worst for last. What appeared to be the back-breaker came with less than four minutes left in the game. The Gophers were clinging to a 28-26 lead when Morgan was strip sacked on third down near midfield. The Eagles’ Rashad Byrd recovered the fumble and took it 44 yards to the house for a 32-28 lead.
Minnesota had played with fire and was about to finally get burnt.
But then came the heroics.
1st & 10 at the Minnesota 25
An incomplete pass at the feet of Rashod Bateman and a reminder that this was a brutal game for the Minnesota offensive line. The Minnesota Movers surrendered five sacks and 11 tackles for loss to Georgia Southern in their worst performance of the season.
2nd & 10 at the Minnesota 25
Morgan has a clean pocket and Tyler Johnson is open but he overthrows him. And it turns out that clean pocket was not created cleanly, as Conner Olson is called for a holding penalty.
2nd & 20 at the Minnesota 15
And here is rock bottom. Right tackle Daniel Faalele is caught completely flat-footed by Eagles linebacker Reynard Ellis, who sacks Morgan for a loss of nine yards.
3rd and 29 at the Minnesota 6
Morgan is standing in his own end zone, with the pocket beginning to show signs of collapse, when Demetrius Douglas appears open at midfield on a curl route. He catches the pass at the 15-yard line but maneuvers his way through the secondary for an extra 12 yards.
4th and 8 at the Minnesota 27
With the game on the line, Morgan finds Douglas again. The Gophers are lined up with four wide receivers and each of their routes is at or beyond the sticks. In what could be interpreted as the subtlest of pick plays, Johnson steps in front of the Georgia Southern defensive back on a slant route, momentarily blocking him from getting to a wide open Douglas until he has already made the catch. With the safety over the top ten yards down the field and the cornerback at midfield angling to cut off Johnson’s route, Douglas is in perfect position.
1st and 10 at the Minnesota 37
The Gophers breathe a sigh of relief with a fresh set of downs, but that relief is short-lived. The Eagles only rush three, but one rusher nearly slips through and Morgan flees at the first sign of trouble. He ultimately throws the ball away, but Faalele is called for a holding penalty.
1st and 20 at the Minnesota 27
Another play that ends with Morgan fleeing the pocket, but Minnesota catches a break when Georgia Southern is called for a defensive holding penalty in the secondary.
2nd and 5 at the Minnesota 42
The Eagles are able to get pressure again, but Morgan steps up and at the last second finds Johnson, who has to come back to the ball but is at least beyond the first down marker.
1st and 10 at the Minnesota 49
I love this play call and design. The Gophers line up with four wide receivers, and Bateman is alone on the short side of the field across from a cornerback in off coverage. Three defensive backs are in man coverage on the wide side of the field, with a pair of safeties both at least 12 yards deep playing center field. The Eagles blitz their only linebacker, leaving the middle of the field wide open for Bateman on a crossing route. And because the other three receivers have cleared out their side of the field, Bateman has room to run.
1st and 10 at the Georgia Southern 36
Here, Morgan wants to roll to his right to get a better view of his three receivers on the wide side of the field, but the right side of the offensive line has been manhandled. Instead, Morgan is forced to run to his left and try to squeeze a dangerous pass into the hands of a diving Douglas, who actually came close to making a circus catch.
2nd and 10 at the Georgia Southern 36
And here is where Bateman blows it wide open. Lined up in the slot, Bateman runs a quick out behind Chris Autman-Bell’s slant, which occupies the cornerback. The cornerback opposite Bateman blitzes, leaving him all alone. With two defenders bearing down on him, Morgan makes the throw and Bateman scampers for a 25-yard gain.
1st and 10 at the Georgia Southern 11
Not a fan of the decision by Morgan to try and hit Autman-Bell in the back of the end zone, as there is a linebacker in coverage drifting in front of him. He is fortunate it only falls incomplete.
2nd and 10 at the Georgia Southern 11
This is a hell of a play by Tanner Morgan. Throwing off his back foot, with at least one defender with a free shot at him and another bearing down from his blind side, Morgan throws it to where only Johnson can get it, putting Minnesota at the goal line.
1st and Goal at the Georgia Southern 1
I think I’ve already mentioned this, but not a great day for the ground game. There is an argument to be made that Tanner should have kept it. With the way the defender crashes down on Bryce Williams, I’m not sure he considered Morgan a serious threat to run it.
2nd and Goal at the Georgia Southern 1
Finally, the pièce de résistance. Fade route to the corner of the end zone. Touchdown Tyler Johnson, even with the defensive back committing defensive pass interference.
Say what you want about the quality of the opponent, but that was a hell of a drive.