BLOOMINGTON, IND. – The Gophers received the college football version of a get-well gift on Saturday. A two-win opponent that deserves the title of worst Big Ten team.
The Indiana Hoosiers are limping to the conclusion of a dreadful season, and the Gophers treated them like a chew toy in a 35-14 thumping that kept afloat their hopes of winning the Big Ten West, as unlikely as that mathematical possibility sounded one week ago in the aftermath of a deflating loss in Iowa City.
The Gophers don't control their destiny entering the final week, but they are still in the race under tiebreaker scenarios, which requires a few favorable outcomes, including a victory over Wisconsin at home.
P.J. Fleck inquired about Iowa in his postgame TV interview — the Hawkeyes won — but said he didn't check the other pertinent scores.
"If we lose next week, it doesn't matter anyway," he said. "We're learning that when you control your own destiny it works out better for you. But we've put ourselves in position."
If the Gophers eroded any confidence in back-to-back losses, Saturday's walk in the park should help replenish the reservoir. That was especially important for the offense, quarterback Tanner Morgan and coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.
Sanford's game plan finally made sense. The execution of it was mostly on point. The Gophers will need all the creativity and execution they can muster against a stout Wisconsin defense that had an uncharacteristic stinker against Nebraska.
Both Sanford and Morgan have worn a bull's-eye in assessing blame for the offense's struggles. The past few weeks have been particularly rough.
On Saturday, the coordinator helped his quarterback find a rhythm with quick-hitting pass concepts instead of using Morgan primarily as a handoff robot.
"If you ask any quarterback, 'Would you like to get in a rhythm early or no?' most guys are going to say yes," Fleck said.
That approach is what made Morgan so successful in 2019. Ignoring the passing game for long stretches is not a recipe for success.
Sanford's game plan for the Hoosiers included creative play designs with screen passes. He also got athletic tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford involved in the passing game, which is a smart business, and called a deep shot to Dylan Wright in his reappearance in the offense.
Morgan looked more comfortable in getting the ball to his playmakers. Chris Autman-Bell snatched two touchdowns in the end zone while being smothered. Always trust him to make a play, even if he's covered.
Morgan passed for 196 yards and two touchdowns in notching his 25th victory as a starter, a program record for quarterbacks.
"I can't say enough about that kid's resolve," Fleck said. "A lot of people are really hard him. He's the all-time winningest quarterback in the history of our program."
Fleck even had a moment of levity in the postgame when asked about his decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Indiana 7 on the opening possession. The Gophers lost 1 yard on a run, costing them a chance at points.
Fleck joked that he would have kicked a field goal, but a certain columnist would have called him conservative, just like the previous week after Fleck kicked a field goal from the 2-yard line against Iowa. Hey, I try to help.
He made the right call Saturday.
"We were definitely going to go for it," he said. "I felt like we needed something right away. That was an attitude play. We just couldn't get it. At that time, that was the best call."
Failing to score was not a back-breaker because the Hoosiers started a freshman quarterback who has zero aptitude as a passer. Once the Gophers eliminated Donaven McCulley's running threat, the Hoosiers had nothing else.
The Gophers flew home knowing they need a win and some help to claim the West. That won't be easy, but now Axe Week carries some extra sizzle.