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Zulgad: Offensive display: Gophers’ performance vs. Illini shows Bowling Green loss was no fluke

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota
Nov 6, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) reacts to coming up short of a first down in the second quarter at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers spent four games attempting to prove that an embarrassing nonconference loss to an awful Bowling Green team was an aberration. Minnesota outscored Purdue, Nebraska, Maryland and Northwestern 125-66 and moved into first place in the Big Ten West with a 4-1 conference record. On Tuesday, the Gophers debuted at No. 20 in the college Football Playoff rankings and a day later coach P.J. Fleck agreed to a seven-year, $35 million contract extension.

Maybe that pathetic Sept. 25 performance against Bowling Green had taught the Gophers a lesson. Maybe they really were headed to their first Big Ten championship games and maybe beating not great Iowa and Wisconsin teams in the season’s final four weeks was a possibility.

Silly, silly us.

Instead of taking care of 3-6 Illinois on Saturday afternoon at Huntington Bank Stadium to extend their winning streak, the Gophers decided to provide a repeat performance of their Bowling Green effort. Minnesota’s offense spent most of a gorgeous fall afternoon looking as if it didn’t have a clue in a 14-6 loss.

Take your pick of where to place blame.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan could have been benched at halftime, only Fleck continues to have confidence in a guy who often plays as if he has none in himself. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s play-calling lacks any creativity and he rarely seems interested in dialing up plays that might put his quarterback in position to succeed. Watch a Gophers game and you’ll see Morgan let the play clock wind down as he looks to the sideline for assistance. The problem is that whatever diagnosis comes for the sideline is often misguided.

You think the Vikings’ play calling is an issue? Senior Chris Autman-Bell, the Gophers’ best receiver, had one catch for 24 yards and was only targeted twice before leaving because of an injury in the third quarter. Morgan finished 15-of-27 for 180 yards with two interceptions. That was misleading because through three quarters he was 7-for-17 for 76 yard. Eight of the senior’s passes, he completed seven for 95 yards, came on the final two drives of the game when the Gophers were in desperation mode.

Sanford and Fleck love to rely on the run, but there hasn’t been a lot of thought given to what happens when the ground game has an off day. The Gophers certainly didn’t expect that would happen Saturday, sitting second in the Big Ten with an average of 222.3 rushing yards per game. Illinois was 12th in run defense, surrendering 159.3 yards.

But after having at least one running back go over 100 yards in the past three games — and two exceed that mark in the past two — the Gophers didn’t have anyone get close Saturday. The Gophers veteran offensive line only managed to get Ky Thomas 60 yards on 16 carries and Bucky Irving 26 yards on five carries.

The Gophers finished with 89 yards rushing as team, the first time this season they have been under the 100-yard mark. This came after they had back-to-back rushing games of 326 and 308 yards against Maryland and Northwestern, respectively.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema, who loves the run game as much as Fleck, got 147 yards on 32 carries from Chase Brown as a Minnesota run defense that was ranked second in the Big Ten often gave up far too many significant running plays.

Only when the Gophers became desperate did Sanford show faith in Morgan. Whether that was wise, is up for debate. Morgan did lead a 13-play, 86-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter that ended with the quarterback scoring on a 1-yard scramble to make it 14-6, but kicker Matthew Trickett, who had missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt near the end of the first half, hit the left upright on the PAT.

The Gophers had one final attempt that began at their own 2-yard line with 1:04 left. There wasn’t much drama. Morgan’s 36-yard completion to his own 38 was followed by an incompletion, a sack, an interception by Kerby Joseph and then an Illinois celebration.

Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin all sat at 3-2 in the Big Ten West entering Saturday and played later in the day. The standings say the 4-2 Gophers remain alive in the race for the West title, but reality says it’s over. Another nondescript bowl awaits.

It’s difficult to believe the Gophers are going to win at Iowa next Saturday or even at home against Wisconsin to end the regular season. Fleck is 1-7 in his time at Minnesota against those teams and there is no sense for anyone to get their hopes up that that will change.

Not after the Gophers’ offensive display on Saturday. The only takeaway now is that the aberration wasn’t the Bowling Green loss, it was the four-game winning streak that followed.