Well, the Gopher football program may have a small problem. We very well may be smack dab in the middle of a quarterback controversy. Tanner Morgan is in his 5th year as the starting quarterback for the Gophers. He has 33 career wins while starting and holds multiple Gopher passing records. One could argue that he is the best Gopher quarterback we have seen in decades.
On the other hand, he has struggled at times this season, including the first half of the Nebraska game on Saturday. Redshirt freshman, Athan Kaliakmanis entered at halftime to spark the offense and lead the Gophers to a comeback win over the Cornhuskers.
Here at The Monday Perspective, I want to help us frame this conversation a little bit.
I don’t want to tell you what to think or that you cannot have an opinion. But what I love about this community of Gopher fans is that we often are able to have informed debates over things like this. We avoid oversimplifying and knee-jerk reactions. Sometimes.
We should all have an opinion on this, it is part of what makes sports fun. And to be honest, I’m not sure what the right answer is. I can see a valid argument for both quarterbacks starting on Saturday. I’m not making an argument for or against either quarterback at this point.
So here are a couple of suggestions on this.
1 - Football is a team game
First of all, this is a team game and we may often attribute much of the team’s success or lack thereof to the QB, it is more complicated than that.
It is undeniable that the offense really sucked in the first two quarters of the Nebraska win. But let’s take a look at each of the drives and try to ascertain why those drives failed realistically. There were essentially 4 drives in the first half where Tanner Morgan was under center.
- Drive 1 - A run for 3, a run for 1 and then Morgan gets sacked. Three plays, for -9 yards. This was clearly the plan to run Mohamed Ibrahim. Nebraska wasn’t very good at defending the run, we gave Mo the ball for 2 carries and were then faced with a 3rd and 6, an obvious passing down. Tanner was quickly sacked, drive over.
- Drive 2 - 10 plays for 30 yards before punting. This time they came out hitting short and intermediate passing routes. Presumably to loosing up the Husker defense. Morgan threw for 26 of the 30 yards on this drive and it ended on an incomplete pass to Brevyn Spann-Ford that was dropped on 3rd and 13. We will come back to this one.
- Drive 3 - started with a short pass to Kristen Hoskins for a 3-yard loss, a loss on 2nd down when Morgan is hit in the backfield and then a 3rd down sack to put the Gophers at 4th and 23. This one was play-calling that put the Gophers behind the sticks and then the Gopher OL struggled to protect. It was quick.
- Drive 4 - running early to Mo for 3 consecutive plays and a first down. Six plays, 21 yards and a punt. They tried to get back to basics before a penalty after the first down put them behind the sticks again.
Much of the offensive struggles were really on the play-calling and the offensive line. Morgan was not perfect by any means, but he was 6/8 passing in the half. The problem was not staying committed to Ibrahim, getting behind the sticks early and the OL struggling in the obvious passing downs. And of course the dropped pass.
The point here is that before throwing the entire offensive failures on Morgan, it is worth taking look at what really went wrong. He was throwing behind receivers and some general miscues from the offense are partially on him as the leader of this group.
2 - We usually see what we want to see. And we oversimplify.
Enter Kaliakmanis and the offense starts moving the ball. And we scored points. Those are true and valid statements. But was this because Kaliakmanis was operating the offense at another level?
Absolutely accurate that the addition of his athleticism meant that the Husker defense had to account for him running the ball on RPO plays. Under Morgan, these were exclusively Ibrahim runs or passes; rarely did he keep it.
2. Athan's success keeping the ball a couple of times on zone read completely changed the way the defensive end played the run, essentially evening up the box count because he had to check keep on every handoff.— Derek Burns (@Derek_S_Burns) November 7, 2022
But also the Gopher line starting to out-physical and wear down the Nebraska front-seven. This is why Ibrahim rushed for 115 yards in the 2nd half alone. There were holes for him and he took advantage of them because he’s really good.
Credit to Kaliakmanis. His added wrinkle was a factor. His 3 rushes for 27 yards was easily enough for the Nebraska defense to have to account for him and it mattered. This is what he is going to bring to the Gopher offense. Along with a really strong arm and a ball that just looks different coming out of his hand.
3 - Hold both quarterbacks to the same standard.
If we were looking at why drives stalled in the first half, it is only fair to do the same in the second. I’m not going through all of them, and I’m going to cherry-pick one.
On the 2nd drive of the half, after the Gophers had driven down to kick a field goal and get on the board, the drive begins with a 38-yard deep pass to Dylan Wright. A great start to the drive by getting into Nebraska territory in one play.
Then they ran Ibrahim for 2 yards, giving them 2nd and 8.
What you see here is Spann-Ford wide open in the flat as the first read and Kaliakmanis decides to hold out for Daniel Jackson deeper. The result, an incomplete pass. Now, this really isn’t a huge deal. Quarterbacks miss passing to the open guy frequently. But what was really scary was the following play on 3rd and 8.
This is when you know you have an inexperienced quarterback who stares down Michael Brown Stephens the entire time and throws the ball directly into the chest of the Nebraska defensive back.
Now, this section isn’t to rail on Kaliakmanis for missing BSF and then getting lucky he didn’t throw a pick. This is a reminder that he still makes mistakes as well. The concept is to hold both quarterbacks to the same standard. We are quick to ignore the mistakes of the one we prefer while focusing on the mistakes of the quarterback we would rather not see on the field.
Finally, some general thoughts...
Following the Rutgers game, I found this quote from PJ Fleck to be interesting and telling.
“Athan encourages Tanner. Athan wants Tanner to do really well. Athan’s absorbing all he can cause he’s going to be a heck of a quarterback. I think you all know that. But Tanner’s also earned the right, in my opinion, to be on that field leading our team. And I told Athan, I’ll do the same for you. When you have that much built up, it’s hard just to sit there and say you go out there and see what happens.”
Not just that he clearly has loyalty to Morgan, and understands that Tanner has done a lot for this program over the last 4 years. But also sending the message to Kaliakmanis that when the time is right, I’ll have your back too. That is how you build some trust.
I also really appreciate how Athan is handling this. There is respect for Tanner and it makes me all the more excited to see him as the team’s eventual leader. This Tweet from Athan’s dad is telling and impressive, especially in today’s competitive sports environment.
QB2’s job is to step up when QB1 goes down and hold down the fort until QB1 is ready to go… QB1 earned the right to go out on his terms. for a speedy recovery to an amazing QB1! Blessed to be a part of the Golden Gopher Family!— alexk0845 (@alexkaliakmanis) November 6, 2022
It is clear that Tanner Morgan has been very good over his Gopher career and that Athan Kaliakmanis is the team’s future. It will be very interesting to see what the staff does over the remaining 3 regular season games. All of which are critical.
Assuming full health, I will expect to see Morgan on the field. But a healthy Morgan may not be available.
One thing for certain, there is going to be a lot of excitement around Kaliakmanis next year. This kid has some special talent and the more time he gets to learn to read a defense and to understand all of the nuances of the playbook, the better.