Tanner Morgan became the all-time winningest quarterback in Gophers history last week, a milestone that earned him a game ball in the postgame locker room and nomination for a national award that recognizes courage in overcoming a personal hardship.
"That's a moment I won't forget for a long time," he said.
It was a nice moment in a challenging season for the senior quarterback. Morgan lost his father, Ted, to brain cancer in July. Anyone who has spent time around the Morgan family knows that Tanner had no bigger fan than his dad.
On the field, Morgan's production continued to regress from his record-setting sophomore season inside an offense that runs the ball roughly 70% of the plays. Coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have much to dissect at season's end in analyzing every facet of the offense.
All of that is for another day. Saturday belongs to pursuit of Paul Bunyan's Axe, as cool a rivalry trophy as there is in college football. That's the only carrot left to chase.
The Gophers were eliminated from Big Ten West contention Friday with Iowa's comeback win at Nebraska. They have only themselves to blame after controlling their own destiny a few weeks ago. Banking on the Cornhuskers to help the cause is a feeble predicament.
Reclaiming the Axe is nothing to shrug over. For Morgan, this is an opportunity to reshape his own narrative in the face of outside criticism by accomplishing something that doesn't happen very often: defeating Wisconsin twice as the Gophers' starting quarterback.
Asad Abdul-Khaliq started for the Gophers in their 2001 and 2003 wins. However, he suffered a shoulder injury late in the first half of the '03 game and was replaced by Benji Kamrath after halftime.
Before that, Scott Schaffner recorded back-to-back wins over Bucky in 1989 and 1990.
Morgan could have five cracks at grabbing the Axe before his career his done.
He was under center as a freshman when the Gophers snapped a 14-game drought on the road in 2018. That win essentially cemented Morgan's status as QB1 moving forward.
A lopsided loss in 2019 cost the Gophers the Big Ten West title and a ticket to the Rose Bowl. A three-point loss in 2020 looked like a sloppy mess, much like the entire pandemic season.
"I wish there were things I would have done differently in other years to give us a better chance to win the Axe – in '19 and '20," Morgan said. "This year we just have to do whatever we can to be successful."
Morgan is eligible to return next season because of the NCAA's COVID waiver, but he has yet to announce his plans. Even if he participates in Senior Day festivities Saturday, that doesn't guarantee he won't exercise his option to play one more season.
That's another conversation for the days ahead.
The finish to this season is what matters now and how Morgan plays against a hard-nosed defense will likely determine the outcome and define how outsiders view the Gophers campaign in totality.
Morgan will face a Badgers defense that ranks No. 5 nationally in points allowed but one that also gave up 351 yards passing to Nebraska's inconsistent quarterback Adrian Martinez a week ago. A blueprint might be found there.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. built a plan for Indiana designed to help Morgan establish a rhythm early with quick-hitting passes. Morgan threw 15 passes in the first half and spread the ball around to a receiving crew that is finally healthy and intact, which made the offense more unpredictable than it looked in a run-heavy approach.
To win back the Axe, the Gophers will need Morgan to make clutch throws and channel his 2019 version. The coaching staff must show trust in him and his receivers and not treat them as passengers, an odd request for a quarterback who has started 37 games.
Morgan often refers to tough times as "dirty water," and he's swam through his share of it. His senior season has been incredibly difficult, both personally and athletically, but getting to touch the Axe again would be another moment to savor.