Back-to-back sacks knocked Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan out of Saturday’s game at Iowa. Whether those hits will keep him out of the Northwestern game this Saturday is still unknown.
Iowa’s defense clobbered Morgan while the Gophers attempted a four-point comeback on their final drive. He left the field dazed but pleaded with coach P.J. Fleck on the sideline to let him finish the game, to no avail.
Fleck said after the game he expected Morgan to enter concussion protocol. Fleck had no further update Monday morning and indicated he would continue to switch between true freshmen Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark as backup options.
Kramer replaced Morgan at Iowa, throwing two passes — an incompletion and a final interception.
Concussion recovery timing spans a wide range and affects players differently. This season, Vanderbilt quarterback Mo Hasan suffered a concussion Oct. 17 and hasn’t played since. Tennessee quarterback Brian Maurer endured a concussion Oct. 12 but played the next game at Alabama, where he suffered a second concussion. He missed the next two games and returned again for a Nov. 9 start.
The Gophers are working on Plan B as they prepare for Saturday’s game at Northwestern after losing for the first time this season at Iowa. There is not a clear No. 2 quarterback. Zack Annexstad, who started last year ahead of Morgan until an injury, hurt his foot early in training camp when competing again with Morgan for the job. Annexstad is out of his walking boot after having surgery but is nowhere near full recovered. Fleck said Annexstad could “possibly be ready for a bowl game, but nothing prior to that.”
That leaves the two true freshmen. Fleck hopes to limit them to four games each and preserve their redshirts. The 6-1, 195-pound Kramer, who led Eden Prairie’s run-heavy offense to the Prep Bowl three times, has played in three already: at Rutgers, against Maryland and at Iowa.
Clark has played only against Maryland, when he threw a 39-yard completion and led a scoring drive. The 6-5, 220-pound Rockwall, Texas, native will be in the mix, as Fleck said he will continue to switch off practice reps until one of them “pulls ahead.”
Fleck explained why this is still a work in progress.
“Cole Kramer will publicly admit he had to start completely over. It’s like taking a guy from a different position and moving him to quarterback because of the triple option he was in,” Fleck said.
“… Jacob was in a really good offense, trained really well, but again when you get to this system and this level, there are so many small details, integral parts of the position that you have got to get better at.”
Because of Annexstad’s injury, the freshmen work with the first team instead of running the scout team, which Fleck leaves to utility player Jonathan Santaga.
The Gophers do have one more option in wildcat quarterback Seth Green. He began his Gophers career as a quarterback before switching to tight end and wide receiver. The Gophers now use him in mostly short-yardage or touchdown situations, as he’s totaled 13 touchdowns and 345 yards in the past two seasons. He’s also thrown a handful of passes, including two TDs last year. He came in for one play against Georgia Southern when Morgan wasn’t available after his helmet came off and helped Fleck to not burn a redshirt game for Kramer.
“His role would be the exact same role that it is,” Fleck said of Green’s involvement in a quarterback crisis. “We might do it a little more.”
Whatever happens with Morgan, Fleck said he’s committed to a bigger-picture future for his players.
“This is not just one season, all in, break everybody’s redshirt and do all this other stuff just for one game,” Fleck said. “It’s about development.”
The stakes couldn’t be much higher for the rest of this season, however. After Northwestern looms the Nov. 30 showdown against Wisconsin, likely for the Big Ten West title. The Big Ten Championship Game and a prominent bowl game could follow that.
Morgan is essential to those high hopes. He largely kept the Gophers in the Iowa game, despite a 20-3 deficit in the first half, throwing for 368 yards and a touchdown. He completed 25 of 36 passes, and a few incompletions were receiver drops.
He’s 13-3 as a starter, dating to halfway through last season. This season, he has thrown for 22 touchdowns with just four interceptions, amassing 2,468 yards while completing 68% of his passes. He ranks sixth in passing efficiency at 186.9, behind names such as Heisman Trophy favorite Joe Burrow and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.
“He’s so gutsy. He’s so tough. He’s such a winner,” Fleck said. “… He rallies everybody. He gives everybody such belief.”