BLOOMINGTON, IND. – While the Gophers were on their way to a 35-14 win over Indiana on Saturday, two games involving the Big Ten West Division leaders were playing out, and the results would impact Minnesota's status in the race.
Iowa, after trailing 10-0 early, beat Illinois 33-23 to stay in a first-place tie at 6-2 with Wisconsin, which beat Nebraska 35-28 in a game that ended just after the Gophers beat Indiana. So that leaves both Minnesota and Purdue, a 32-14 winner over Northwestern, tied for third place at 5-3.
"We have to take care of our business,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "If we lose next week, it doesn't matter anyway.''
The Gophers finish their regular season on Saturday against Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe in a game that will start at either 2:30 or 3 p.m. On Friday afternoon, Iowa faces Nebraska in Lincoln. Purdue, which cannot win the West, closes at home against Indiana on Saturday.
Here is a look at title scenarios:
Wisconsin: The Badgers' path is straightforward. Beat Minnesota, and the title is theirs, no matter what Iowa does. The Badgers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes.
Iowa: Beat Nebraska and hope the Gophers beat Wisconsin. If that happens, Iowa will win the West outright.
Gophers: This is where it gets complicated. The Gophers must beat Wisconsin, have Nebraska beat Iowa and have Purdue beat Indiana. If that happens, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue would be in a four-way tie at 6-3. The first tiebreaker in play in that scenario would be best record among the four teams. The Gophers and Wisconsin would be 2-1 in the group, while Iowa and Purdue would be 1-2, eliminating the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers. That would leave the Gophers and Wisconsin tied, and Minnesota would win the head-to-head tiebreaker if they beat the Badgers.
It was less complicated on Oct. 30, when the Gophers had a one-game lead atop the West. Back-to-back losses to Illinois and Iowa put them in their current predicament.
"We're learning that when you control your own destiny, it works out better for you,'' Fleck said. "When you have to allow somebody else to do something for you, you just never know.
"… It doesn't matter what the scores are or what the records are, we've got to play our best football,'' Fleck added. "We're really excited about the opportunity at Huntington Bank Stadium for the last game of the year to win the Axe and maybe have a chance at Indianapolis.''
Morgan bounces back
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan played one of his best games of the season, completing 14 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He was especially sharp on third down, going 5-for-5 for 72 yards and throwing for four first downs and a touchdown.
"I can't say enough about that kid's resolve,'' Fleck said. "A lot of people were really hard on him.''
Morgan was pleased with how the offense responded, especially after the first drive was stopped on fourth-and-1 from the Indiana 7-yard line. He used six different receivers and was sharp on screen passes, such as the 11-yard middle screen to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford to set up the Gophers first touchdown.
"We definitely were aggressive with things like that, and it comes down to coaches putting us in elite positions to be successful,'' Morgan said. "Guys went out there and made plays. We have to earn that trust.''