Quarterback Tanner Morgan fulfills promise on winning Axe, pledges for 2022

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Nov. 28—Mark Coyle hugged Tanner Morgan after Minnesota's 23-13 win over Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday — a nice moment between the Gophers' athletics director and the U's starting quarterback.

Then Coyle brought up Minnesota's loss to Wisconsin last year. He wasn't harping on the bad memory of not winning Paul Bunyan's Axe but instead wanted to remind Morgan of what he said after that 20-17 overtime loss at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. When the postgame Zoom interviews was done, a fired-up Morgan said to the AD, "We're gonna win that thing next year," Morgan said, with a colorful adjective mixed in.

While not holding the 6-foot rivalry trophy certainly stuck with Morgan, he said he forgot making that statement/guarantee until Coyle brought it up in the celebration Saturday.

"It's pretty cool to be able to, I guess, deliver on that promise," Morgan said.

After winning the Axe on Saturday, Morgan made another pledge: he will return for the 2022 season.

"I'll be back," he told the Pioneer Press.

Morgan, who did not participate in Senior Day on Saturday, will use his sixth season of eligibility next fall. It was made possible because the NCAA determined the 2020 season won't count against eligibility limits because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After Morgan's news Sunday, third-year backup QB Jacob Clark, a Texas native who played in one game in 2019 entered, the NCAA transfer portal, "I love my teammates and I'm so thankful for my time and experiences at the University of Minnesota," he wrote on social media.

Three scholarship players currently sit behind Morgan — fourth-year Zack Annexstad, third-year Cole Kramer and freshman Athan Kaliakmanis. One more is on his way in the 2022 recruiting class, Jacob Knuth from Harrisburg, S.D.

The return of Morgan leads to two primary questions going into next fall: How will the quarterback competition be handled from top to bottom? And could more QBs explore options in at other schools before then? Morgan became the winningest QB in Gophers history this season, adding eight wins to his total, but he also struggled in the U's four losses.

With the win over the Badgers, Morgan improved to 2-2 against Wisconsin and 26-12 overall since midway through the 2018 season. He said the confidence to tell Coyle they would win Saturday came from how they had beaten Wisconsin in 2018 and were so close in 2020.

"We felt like we should have won that game," Morgan said of last year. "More games are lost than won and, to me, waking off that field, I knew I didn't want to leave this game without the Axe again for the rest of my career."

Fellow fifth-year players Boye Mafe and Chris Autman-Bell said the overtime loss to Wisconsin also stirred a fire inside them.

"I thought about it all week," said Autman-Bell, who left last year's game with an injury. "... I didn't let my game get emotional. I play with emotion instead. I just stuck it out. We came together as a team and we fought back. The game last year was something that was definitely disappointing, but to come back and bring it back home to this team and to this state is something I'm forever grateful for."

On Saturday, Morgan bounced back after a tough start against the Badgers. After the Badgers intercepted a tipped pass for a pick six in the second quarter for a 10-6 lead, Morgan's throw to Autman-Bell went for 27-yard touchdown gave the Gophers a 20-13 lead in the third quarter. He completed 11 of 16 passes for 199 yards with two other big completions to Brevyn Spann-Ford, and one to Dylan Wright in the second half.

"Tanner never lets anything get to him," Autman-Bell said. "Tanner has been through everything in this world and some people in this world couldn't go through what he's been through. He is still coming to lead this team every day with a smile on his face and be ecstatic and so up every day. That is what a leader is and that is who Tanner Morgan is, and that is somebody that I look up still to this day."

Besides Morgan, Minnesota also retained Mo Ibrahim for next season, the 2020 BigTen Running Back of the Year announced last week. The statuses of other fifth-year players aren't as clear. Autman-Bell, defensive lineman Boye Mafe, center John Michael Schmitz, guard Blaise Andries and defensive end Esezi Otomewo participated in Senior Day, but they have one year of eligibility remaining and have not made their plans public.

BRIEFLY

Gophers third-year linebacker James "DJ" Gordon entered the transfer portal on Sunday, a source told the Pioneer Press. The Plant City, Fla., native played in 12 games this season, making four tackles. ... Gophers graduate transfer defensive tackle Val Martin from North Carolina State has left the program. He did not play in the four November games, nor was he honored at Senior Day.

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