MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota never let up against another overmatched opponent, from start to finish and top to bottom — all the way down to the furry maroon and gold mascot.
Tanner Morgan passed for 287 yards and a score over 2 1/2 quarters and had one of Minnesota’s seven rushing touchdowns in a 62-10 victory over Western Illinois on Saturday.
Mohamed Ibrahim (23 carries for 130 yards) and Trey Potts (10 carries for 79 yards) kept their comeback from injuries going strong with two scores apiece on the ground for the Gophers (2-0), whose 679 total yards were the third most in program history.
“This team has their own external expectations and the style of play they want to play with, and it really doesn’t matter the opponent,” coach P.J. Fleck said.
Morgan went 14 for 18 passing without a turnover before yielding to backups Athan Kaliakmanis and Cole Kramer for the bulk of the second half. The Gophers posted their highest score in Fleck’s six seasons and their most since a 63-26 victory over Indiana in 2006.
Goldy Gopher’s customary commitment to one pushup per point became quite the struggle after the final touchdown, a 30-yard run by reserve Preston Jelen for his first career score. Those costume-covered arms barely squeezed out the last couple of those 63 repetitions while the students remaining in the stadium boisterously cheered him on. For the afternoon, he logged 353 pushups.
Morgan had his most passing yards since the late-season loss to Wisconsin in 2019. He hit fellow sixth-year standout Chris Autman-Bell five times for 118 yards and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford for a 45-yard touchdown while crisply spreading the ball all over the field on deep posts, quick outs and of course his trademark slants.
“It’s not a secret formula. It’s about understanding the plays we have and what we want to accomplish on that play,” Morgan said. “We’ve got a lot of dudes around on our offense who can make plays, and that makes my job a lot easier. Every guy on the field I trust wholeheartedly.”
After a quick kick by Western Illinois quarterback Nick Davenport that produced a 64-yard punt in the second quarter, Morgan went 3 for 3 for 88 yards — all to Autman-Bell — on a 96-yard scoring drive that made it 28-3.
“It’s all a huge trust thing,” Autman-Bell said. “I appreciate the love from the guys.”
Davenport’s 33-yard pass to Naseim Brantley for the Leathernecks (0-2) with 4:26 left marked the first touchdown given up by the Gophers this year. They beat New Mexico State 38-0 last week.
The Gophers gave the Leathernecks a golden opportunity to stay close for a little bit. Michael Brown-Stephens lost a fumble after a short reception on the second snap of the game, when the ball was forced out by nose tackle Tre Henry and recovered at the Minnesota 45.
Western Illinois failed to move the chains, though, and Ogala’s swing pass to Jafar Armstrong on fourth and 3 was smothered by safety Jordan Howden for a 2-yard loss.
Howden later had a diving interception among the highlights for Minnesota’s defense, which limited the Leathernecks to 35 yards on 19 rushing attempts.
The Gophers, who beat Western Illinois 29-12 in 2013 in the only previous meeting, are 61-4 all-time against teams currently in the FCS. Their last such loss was to North Dakota State in 2011.
Western Illinois: Picked to finish last in their 11-team league that’s perhaps the best in the FCS, the Leathernecks have started over this year under new head coach Myers Hendrickson.
Minnesota: The return of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after two seasons elsewhere has sparked a revival of Minnesota’s passing attack that lagged in his absence and after wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman departed to the NFL. Morgan struggled at times in 2021 during a difficult year marked by the death of his father, but he’s been as sharp as ever this season.
“I think he looks poised. I think he looks confident. I think he’s earned the right to be confident,” Fleck said. “I think what you see is he always knows where to go with the ball, and I think that’s a compliment to Kirk.”
Western Illinois plays Southern Utah next Saturday, the home opener and last nonconference game.
Minnesota hosts Colorado next Saturday. The Gophers beat the Buffaloes 30-0 on the road in 2021.
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