Scoggins: Gophers take right approach in airing it out vs. inferior Leathernecks

Scoggins: Gophers take right approach in airing it out vs. inferior Leathernecks
·4 min read

Michael Brown-Stephens caught a short pass on the second play of the game Saturday and fumbled as he tried to muscle for yards.

A year ago, the Gophers might not have attempted another pass for two quarters.

This time, they became Air Gophers.

P.J. Fleck and his trusted coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca kept letting Tanner Morgan fling the ball downfield.

Smart strategy.

A dynamic passing game requires nurturing and repetition and trust. It's not something that can be turned on and off like a light switch.

Ciarrocca's influence as a play-caller was on full display in a 62-10 rout of FCS member Western Illinois, and his quarterback responded with a performance that was reminiscent of 2019.

Morgan dissected the defense in completing 14 of 18 passes for 287 yards with one touchdown before taking a seat midway through the third quarter.

"We've got a lot of dudes on our offense that can make plays and that makes my job a lot easier," Morgan said. "Every guy on the field I trust wholeheartedly. I'm the point guard just dishing them the ball."

Let's pause here to offer a necessary disclaimer. Western Illinois was decidedly overmatched as a 37.5-point underdog. The Gophers won't face a weaker opponent on the schedule.

That's precisely why the game plan made sense. Fleck's history in nonconference games has been to run the ball endlessly to bleed the clock and not show Big Ten opponents the full playbook. Problem is, the Gophers kept their passing game under wraps for the entire 2021 season.

Treating the pass as Plan B fails to maximize the offense's potential. The imbalance under former coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. created a predictable approach that made the offense turn stale and lethargic. Morgan suffered more than anyone.

Ciarrocca's return after a two-year absence has reignited Morgan's confidence throwing the ball and managing the offense. His body language just looks different.

It helps to start the season with a couple of lesser opponents to create a positive vibe. Tougher competition awaits, which will be the ultimate gauge of Ciarrocca's influence, but so far, the offense is humming and Morgan looks in complete control running the show.

"He looks poised, he looks confident," Fleck said. "What you see is that he always knows where to go with the ball. That's a compliment to Kirk and the relationship they have."

Fleck realized that finishing 127th nationally in passing attempts (ahead of only three service academies in all FBS) was not a sustainable or successful template in replacing Sanford after last season. Ciarrocca's fingerprints were evident Saturday in a game plan that was far more balanced, creative and aggressive.

He called his standard pass concepts such as RPO slants, but he also gave Morgan multiple opportunities to take deep shots when Western Illinois committed extra defenders against the run.

"We're able to do a lot more because of the personnel that we have," Fleck said. "They allow us to be able to spread it around a little bit more."

Case in point: On their third possession, Morgan overthrew Dylan Wright down the middle of the field on first down. Ciarrocca followed that by calling back-to-back pass plays, which resulted in completions to Chris Autman-Bell (15 yards) and Brown-Stephens (35 yards).

Saturday's tune-up provided the perfect moment to work on their passing game, knowing they had a comfortable margin for error.

Morgan connected with Autman-Bell on a deep cross for 54 yards. He squeezed a pass between the cornerback and safety to Le'Meke Brockington for a 36-yard completion. And when Western Illinois left 6-7 tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford wide open down the field, Morgan tossed an easy pitch-and-catch for a 45-yard touchdown.

"That was really fun," Morgan said. "It was a great play call. We got the perfect look for it. It was just a really cool moment."

The quarterback and play-caller had other cool moments, which is what the offense needs. Games will become harder and more stressful moving forward. Building confidence in the passing game so that the offense has balance is a necessary step in preparing for that jump in competition.