Jan 1, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) calls a play against the Auburn Tigers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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No. 21 Minnesota to rely on veteran leader vs. No. 18 Michigan

Tanner Morgan gives Minnesota something that its opening-night opponent doesn’t have: an experienced quarterback.

Morgan threw 30 touchdown passes last season when the Golden Gophers won 11 games — the first time since 1904 — which included an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. The junior will try to get his 21st-ranked team off to a strong start when it hosts No. 18 Michigan on Saturday.

Morgan passed for 3,253 yards, completed 66 percent of his attempts and was picked off just seven times last year for Minnesota, which won its first nine games. His touchdown, yards and completion marks all were school records.

Coach P.J. Fleck said he expects even bigger things from Morgan in this abbreviated campaign.

“I think that what’s going to elevate his game is being able to find a way to get everybody else around him to elevate their play based on how he plays,” Fleck said. “I think his leadership has gone through the roof. It’s better now than it’s ever been. His familiarity with the offense, his film study, familiarity with his teammates has all made him a better leader.”

Fleck has lifted up a floundering Gophers program since he became head coach in 2017. The last time Minnesota was involved in a matchup of ranked teams to start a season was 1968.

Rashod Bateman, the team’s second-leading receiver a year ago, also returns after racking up 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns on 60 receptions. Mohamed Ibrahim (604 yards, seven TDs) is expected to be the lead back this season.

Minnesota’s top three tacklers a year ago are gone but Fleck has a good feeling about how his defense is progressing.

“There’s going to be a lot of questions that come up every single week,” Fleck said. “I’m excited about where our defense is headed. I think I have a good feeling about where we’re at, but again you don’t know until the lights come on and until these guys are actually playing games.”

The same can be said for Michigan’s quarterbacks. The projected starter, junior Joe Milton, has thrown only 11 passes the past two seasons. Coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t commit to Milton as his starter, contending redshirt freshman Cade McNamara is still in the running.

“(He’s) showed a lot of great things,” Harbaugh said of Milton. “Joe’s been running with the ones and really … he’s made a lot of strides, getting a lot of reps, as well as Cade McNamara, who’s closed all gaps as well. He’s playing extremely well. Really good command of the offense. Showing a real savviness and also a lot of talent.”

Fleck doesn’t seem to have any doubt which quarterback his defense will be facing.

“Anybody who looks at Joe Milton knows what type of special talent he is,” he said. “He’s a once-in-a-decade type talent that comes through the program when you’re talking about his skill set. He can throw the ball far, he can run, he’s big and he’s strong.”

The Wolverines are coming off a 9-4 season, which included a Citrus Bowl loss to Alabama. Harbaugh said he believes his current group bonded during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The guys have each others’ back,” Harbaugh said. “Just the one-ness of the team. Been thrilled to be around. I like these players, I think they really like us, they like me, like their teammates. It’s a fun team to coach.”

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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