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Minnesota needs to make a change on offense

Catastrophic failure demands accountability

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Bowling Green at Minnesota

The Golden Gophers’ 14-10 loss to Bowling Green on Saturday was Tanner Morgan’s 30th start at quarterback for Minnesota, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching the game.

Minnesota struggled to run the football most of the game, but attempted fewer than 20 passes when all was said and done. Morgan finished the game 5-of-13 for 59 passing yards with two interceptions and four sacks. As Chip Scoggins said in his Saturday column for the Star Tribune: “They either hate to pass or don’t trust the passing game, and neither one of those is good.”

To be clear, the Gophers’ passing game woes cannot be entirely attributed to Morgan. The offensive line — one of the deepest and most experienced offensive lines the program has had in years — looked lost in pass protection. They seemed unprepared for and bewildered by the Falcons’ stunts and blitzes, which led to four sacks on four drive-killing third downs. Minnesota’s receiving corps — a position group where head coach P.J. Fleck and wide receivers coach Matt Simon have earned a reputation for being able to recruit and develop elite talent — was MIA, failing to create much separation against the Bowling Green secondary.

Lack of experience is no longer an excuse. We’re in Year 5 of the P.J. Fleck era, so you can’t make the case that they haven’t able to bring in their own recruits. That leaves coaching.

No coach bears more responsibility for the offense than Mike Sanford Jr., and Fleck needs to have a difficult conversation with him that starts with one question:

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In his postgame press conference Saturday, Fleck said the passing game “couldn’t get in rhythm” and went on to list pass protection, quarterback play, wide receiver play, tight end play, and throwing and catching of the football as the specific areas where they struggled to get traction. Strangely absent was mention of his offensive coordinator.

I’m not about to blame Sanford for the play of the offensive line or the absence of playmakers at wide receiver, but I would say the offensive co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach bears responsibility for the offensive game plan, the play-calling, and the development of the quarterback. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone praising him for the latter.

The deconstruction of Tanner Morgan

Tanner Morgan has been a shadow of his former self since Sanford stepped on campus.

Tanner Morgan

Season(s) Games CMP ATT CMP% YDS TDS INT
Season(s) Games CMP ATT CMP% YDS TDS INT
2019 13 210 318 66% 3,253 30 7
2020, 2021 11 144 255 56.4% 1,914 10 7

I’ve heard your “Tanner Morgan is not a good quarterback” takes, but bad quarterbacks don’t break single-season school records. I think he is a good quarterback who was made to look great by two of the best wide receivers in program history. Morgan owns his struggles the last two seasons, but he has also not been operating in an offensive scheme that suits his strengths.

The RPO offense under former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was perfect for Morgan because it used the threat of the run to clear out the middle of the field, allowing Morgan to make a simple read and throw a quick pass with enough open space for the receiver to pick up yards after the catch. This is where Sanford failed Morgan in the Bowling Green game, specifically.

Sanford repeatedly set up Morgan for failure with slow-developing passing concepts on obvious passing downs when the Falcons were getting easy penetration on blitzes.

Take for example this 3rd & 8 in the first quarter:

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Two defenders blitz the A gap and center John Michael Schmitz is only able to pick up one of them, affording the other a free shot at Morgan with a full head of steam. Morgan could have done more to evade pressure, but look at his options in the passing game. Trey Potts leaks out and is covered up behind the line of scrimmage, and everyone else is running well beyond the sticks. Brady Boyd isn’t even coming out of his break until the defender is already decapitating Morgan. Why are these receivers running such deep routes?

Granted, this was early in the game, so I’d be more forgiving of Sanford if he had adjusted from there. Unfortunately, he did not. Fast forward to this fourth quarter sack on 3rd & 4:

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What is Morgan supposed to do with the ball in the time it takes the blitzing slot corner to blow him up? The outside receivers are running to the sticks and turning around but both are covered. Mike Brown-Stephens is wide open thanks to the blitzing corner but runs vertical to the safety. Daniel Jackson comes open eventually but the play is long dead by the time that happens.

How do you not recognize that Bowling Green is blitzing on third and long and take advantage of that with shorter routes and quicker passes? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

The regression of the Gophers’ offense

If you pull back and take a bird’s eye view of the offense, the stats are damning.

Offense Comparison

Offensive Stat 2019 2020 2021
Offensive Stat 2019 2020 2021
Rushing Offense 178.7 YPG 191.9 YPG 209.2 YPG
Passing Offense 253.3 YPG 201.3 YPG 135 YPG
Team Passing Efficiency 177.99 128.91 125.72
Total Offense 432 YPG 393.1 YPG 344.2 YPG
Scoring Offense 34.1 PPG 27.3 PPG 25.5 PPG

The ground game has become the driving force of the offense, but the Gophers have not strayed far from the zone blocking scheme they utilized under Ciarrocca. So I’m not sure how much credit Sanford deserves for that, though I will concede at least some credit. Everywhere else, Minnesota is down. Since 2019, passing yards are down 46.7%, the team’s passing efficiency is down 29.3%, and the Gophers are scoring 8.6 fewer points per game.

Fleck either has not recruited the talent necessary to succeed on offense, or he has an offensive coordinator who is not maximizing that talent. He faced a similar situation in 2018, when then defensive coordinator Robb Smith oversaw one of the most hapless defenses in the country. Fleck realized he needed to make a change and fired Smith midseason, replacing him with Joe Rossi. The turnaround was immediate and the fact that Rossi is still defensive coordinator three years later should tell you everything you need to know about that decision.

Wide receivers coach Matt Simon is already waiting in the wings, having been promoted to offensive co-coordinator when Sanford was first hired. Fleck now has to ask himself what Sanford has brought to this offense since his arrival and whether he is willing to gamble the rest of this season — and possibly his future at Minnesota — on whatever value he feels Sanford provides.