Pick-six, long kickoff return spark Gophers to Pinstripe Bowl victory

NEW YORK — Tanner Morgan, the Gophers sixth-year senior quarterback who's seen more highs and lows that most players could imagine, took the snap from Nathan Boe and dropped to a knee in victory formation one last time.

Morgan, thrust into Thursday's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium because of an injury to starter Athan Kaliakmanis, closed his Minnesota career with style and substance by passing for two touchdowns as the Gophers outlasted Syracuse 28-20 for their sixth consecutive bowl victory and fourth in a row under coach P.J. Fleck.

"The thing I just keep coming back to is gratefulness,'' Morgan said. "I'm grateful for every teammate I've had. I'm grateful for every coach I've had.''

And Thursday, those teammates, both old and young, played key roles so Morgan, out since Nov. 4 because of concussions, didn't have to shoulder all of the burden. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 16 times for 71 yards in the first half, in the process stamping his name all over the Gophers' record book. True freshman defensive back Coleman Bryson returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown, just when the Orange were threatening to take the lead. And redshirt freshman wideout Quentin Redding returned a kickoff 72 yards to set up Minnesota's final TD, the second of wide receiver Daniel Jackson's two TD grabs.

"It was a well-fought game on both sides,'' Fleck said. "It could have gone either way. I'm just really glad it came out the way it did for us.''

The Gophers finished the season 9-4 for the second consecutive year and have nine or more wins in the past three full seasons.

The victory carried a price, though, with Kaliakmanis leaving the game in the second quarter after taking a low hit. He was assisted off the field by training staff, putting very little weight on his injured leg. Kaliakmanis did not return to the game. Also, linebacker Cody Lindenberg suffered a leg injury and left the game for good in the third quarter.

Afterward, Fleck delivered good news concerning both players.

"They're gonna be OK,'' he said. "I can't say they're minor, but they're not major. If it was a normal season, maybe a few weeks [to recover], so that's definitely a blessing.''

The first half saw the Gophers take a 14-0 lead on Ibrahim's 4-yard run early in the second quarter during a drive in which Kaliakmanis was 4-for-4 for 47 yards, including a 20-yard TD pass to Jackson. On that play, Jackson made a spectacular catch by wrestling the ball away from defensive back Jason Simmons, landing in bounds and securing control.

"He's playing at a completely different level right now,'' Fleck said.

Led by quarterback Garrett Shrader (32-for-51, 330 yards), Syracuse came to life late in the second quarter, driving 86 yards in 47 seconds to trim the lead to 14-7 on Shrader's 1-yard run and ensuing PAT.

BOXSCORE: Gophers 28, Syracuse 20

The Orange (7-6) got the ball to start the second half and cut the lead to 14-10 on Andre Szmyt's 40-yard field goal.

Syracuse, which held the Gophers to 31 second-half yards, was knocking again at the Minnesota 32 when Bryson jumped an out route by Orande Gadsden II, intercepted the pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown and 21-10 lead with 7:22 left in the third quarter. The pick-six was the Gophers first since Coney Durr's against Maryland in 2019 and their longest interception return in bowl history and first pick-six in a bowl.

"I looked up at the [video] screen, actually, because I couldn't believe it,'' Bryson said.

Still, the Orange weren't done, getting Szmyt's 38-yard field goal to make it 21-13.

Enter Redding, who delivered the backbreaker on the ensuing kickoff return, sprinting up the right sideline, then cutting back for a 72-yard return to the Orange 25. Two plays later, Morgan found Jackson for his second TD pass and a 28-13 lead.

"I was with my receivers, and we were all joking," Redding said. "They said, 'Q, now it's your turn to go get one.' Sure enough, the opportunity presented itself.''

Syracuse scored again on Shrader's 8-yard scramble with 2:30 left, but the Gophers defense bowed up the rest of the way, and the offense had its chance to kneel down after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by the Orange kept Minnesota's offense on the field.

"I couldn't be more proud of these seniors,'' Fleck said after the game. "They've given a lot to this program on and off the field and represented Minnesota in a first-class fashion. And they should be really proud.

"I told them that it's not goodbye, it's just bye for now.''