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Zulgad: Gophers should turn to Zack Annexstad at QB after embarrassing loss to Bowling Green

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Minnesota
Sep 25, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Bowling Green Falcons defensive lineman Karl Brooks (44) sacks Minnesota Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) during the second quarter at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers will resume Big Ten play next Saturday at Purdue. They need to do it with Zack Annexstad at quarterback. The call for P.J. Fleck to make a QB change went from hot take to necessary reality on Saturday during the Gophers’ embarrassing 14-10 loss to Bowling Green at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Minnesota, which was a 31-point favorite, put on a putrid performance and committed countless miscues in finding a way to lose to a team that has been picked by many to finish last in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference, but what stood out the most was just how little confidence Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., have in Morgan.

That seemed misguided until the Gophers were forced to put the ball in Morgan’s hands down by four late in the game and he failed them miserably by throwing two interceptions on Minnesota’s final two drives. Two years ago, as the Gophers went 11-2 and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Morgan played so well that there was talk he could be an NFL draft pick.

On Saturday, Morgan looked like a guy who belongs on the sideline.

Sanford called 45 rushing attempts and only 13 passes against a team that was 1-2 and had lost to South Alabama. Morgan completed five passes for 59 yards with two interceptions and was sacked four times. In the first half, the Gophers ran the ball 28 times and threw it only seven times. Sanford opened the second half by calling for back-to-back pass plays as the Gophers attempted to rally from a 7-3 deficit and take control of a game.

Morgan’s 10-yard completion was wiped out by a penalty, but he then hit on a 25-yard pass to Daniel Jackson that put the ball at the Bowling Green 42. The Gophers then ran the ball six consecutive times, ending with Cole Kramer’s 19-yard touchdown that gave Minnesota a three-point lead.

The Gophers would not pass the ball for the rest of the third quarter, running 11 consecutive times, before Morgan was allowed to go to the air for a 2-yard completion on the first play of the fourth quarter. This came a week after the Gophers ran the ball 53 times on 70 plays in a 30-0 victory at Colorado.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, known for his love of running the football, looks as if he’s running an Air Coryell offense compared to what Fleck and Sanford have decided to do in grounding the Gophers and Morgan.

As laughable as it seems now, the Gophers looked as if they could be 8-1 overall heading into their Nov. 13 game at Iowa. But Saturday’s debacle, which drops Minnesota to 2-2 and ends their run of 21 consecutive non-conference wins, the longest active streak in the country, will raise questions about whether this is a bowl team and just how far Fleck’s stock might be falling.

The win at Colorado was impressive, but the Gophers also played a far-too-close game in beating visiting Miami of Ohio by only five points on Sept. 11. A season-opening 45-31 loss to Ohio State at Huntington Bank Stadium also looks worse, considering how poor the Buckeyes have been on defense.

The Gophers’ loss on Saturday drew comparisons to some of Tim Brewster’s most embarrassing defeats during his tenure at Minnesota. There was no sugarcoating this mess. The Gophers were called for seven penalties for 71 yards; fumbled twice and lost one of them; nearly muffed a punt on a return late in the fourth quarter after Fleck had decided to force Bowling Green to punt again; and Fleck again made numerous questionable in-game coaching decisions.

But it’s difficult not to keep coming back to the fact that Bowling Green spent the entire game knowing the run was coming and Sanford continually did everything in his power to keep the ball out of Morgan’s hands. When Morgan did get his chance, he failed.

His deep pass attempt for Dylan Wright on first-and-10 from the Gophers’ 35-yard line was picked off by Devin Taylor at the Bowling Green 35 with 2 minutes, 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The play call was curious because Minnesota had time on the clock and a timeout left, but the pass was underthrown and Wright never had a chance.

Bowling Green went three-and-out and the Gophers got the ball back with 23 seconds to go at their own 42. This time Morgan forced a pass over the middle that was picked off by Jordan Anderson, setting off a celebration on the Bowling Green sideline and creating questions about what the Gophers will do next.

There are many potential reasons for Morgan’s struggles. Some are in his control and some aren’t but it’s clear he isn’t the same quarterback he was in 2019 when he passed for 3,253 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Having wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who was taken by Baltimore in the first round of this year’s draft, certainly was an advantage.

It goes beyond that. Morgan isn’t nearly as sharp, and Sanford’s play calling falls short of what former coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dialed up before he departed following the 2019 season. Morgan’s offensive line, which was outstanding against Colorado, also had a rough day on Saturday and top wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell left the game early after appearing to injure his ankle. He sat out the first two games of the season because of an ankle injury and there’s a chance he could miss the Purdue game.

Coming off a disappointing pandemic-shortened 3-4 finish last season, the Gophers were expected to return to their 2019 form. That’s why giving Annexstad a shot makes sense. The redshirt junior beat out Morgan and was named the Gophers’ starting quarterback by Fleck in 2018 as a true freshman. He started the first seven games (3-4) and played in eight total before injuring his ankle. Annexstad missed all of 2019 after hurting his right foot in preseason camp, opening the door for Morgan to keep the job.

Morgan made the most of the opportunity. But on Saturday it became clear that Annexstad should be back in the mix and Morgan might benefit from watching from the sideline. If Annexstad can’t generate any offense, then it will be time to wonder if Sanford should be the next guy to be replaced. A bit harsh, you say? A loss as a 31-point favorite can have rough consequences.