In Minnesota, an anonymous quarterback and unbeaten team look to introduce themselves vs. Penn State

You can forgive yourself if you're not familiar with No. 17 Minnesota's football team. When the Gophers host No. 4 Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday morning, it will be the first time they've been in the national spotlight in a while. I took to Twitter this week to ask Minnesota fans when the last time the Gophers had played in such a big football game was and received a variety of answers. Everything from "the beginning of time" to the somewhat more recent "invention of the aeroplane."

In other words, it's been a while.

Minnesota enters this weekend's game ranked at No. 17 in the first College Football Playoff Rankings of the season, a full five spots below the next undefeated team in No. 12 Baylor. As if that's not insulting enough, Minnesota finds itself ranked behind six teams with two losses. This is the result of being 8-0 when nobody ever expected you to be, mixed in with some luck.

It's easy to write Minnesota off, as it hasn't played the most difficult schedule. Its nonconference slate consisted of South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. The Gophers won those three games by a total of 13 points. Minnesota trailed after three quarters against South Dakota State, needed overtime to get past Fresno State, and kicked a game-winning field goal to beat Georgia Southern with 13 seconds left. In the Big Ten, Minnesota has beaten Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland. The five teams are a combined 17-28 on the season, and 8-22 in Big Ten play. Also, all five of those teams either started their backup quarterback or were forced to play them the majority of the game due to injuries to their starter in the game.

These are all reasons why Minnesota isn't getting the same kind of respect an 8-0 team from a Power Five conference typically receives. But just because there are reasons to doubt the Gophers doesn't mean there aren't reasons to believe in them.

While Penn State will be far and away the best team Minnesota has faced this season, it would be foolish to overlook this team. Advanced metrics like SP+ -- which adjust for opponent strength -- rate the Minnesota offense as the eighth-best offense in the country this season. It's a team that knows who it is and sticks to that identity. The Gophers offense runs the ball nearly two-thirds of the time behind a massive offensive line. If it's going to pull off an upset over Penn State, however, it's not likely to do so running into the Penn State defensive front. According to the same SP+ metric that rates Minnesota's offense so highly, there hasn't been a rush defense in the country better than the Penn State unit Minnesota will see on Saturday.

All of this means that quarterback Tanner Morgan will be vital to his team's chances of success, and Morgan is a QB who has flown under the radar like his team this season. Morgan's easy to miss. If you see him with his helmet and pads off, he looks like a larger version of his coach, P.J. Fleck. The former three-star recruit from Kentucky -- who also happens to be the cousin of former Kentucky QB and No. 1 NFL Draft pick Tim Couch -- originally committed to Western Michigan when Fleck was coaching there. Once Fleck accepted the Minnesota job, Morgan followed him sight unseen. Seriously, the first time Morgan saw the University of Minnesota campus was when he enrolled. He had already been sold on playing for Fleck, not a particular school, and that commitment is paying off for Fleck and the Gophers this season.

As mentioned above, Minnesota runs the ball nearly two-thirds of the time, so Morgan doesn't drop back to pass as often as a lot of quarterbacks, but when he does, he's been ruthlessly effective.

Entering this weekend, 108 FBS quarterbacks had thrown a minimum of 150 passes this season. If you were to rank them by their TD rate (the percentage of their pass attempts that result in a touchdown), you'd see familiar names in the top four. You see Tua Tagovailoa, followed by Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow. Then there's Morgan's name.


TD Rate

Yards Per Attempt

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama



Justin Fields, Ohio State



Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma



Joe Burrow, LSU



Tanner Morgan, Minnesota



You see, while Morgan might not play in a passing offense, he throws a pretty deep ball that catches a lot of defenses off-guard when playing an offense that runs the ball so often. That's why, of those same 108 QBs, Morgan ranks third in air yards (number of yards past the line of scrimmage a pass travels) per pass attempt, behind only Hurts and Burrow.


Air Yards Per Attempt

Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma


Joe Burrow, LSU


Tanner Morgan, Minnesota


Tyler Johnston III, UAB


Justin Fields, Ohio State


So this isn't some dink-and-dunk passing attack. Minnesota is looking to stretch the field vertically, and Morgan has been a perfect fit for this style of play. This is quite a shift for the Minnesota offenses, as its offenses under Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys often seemed built around QBs allergic to throwing the ball.

Saturday's game against Penn State will no doubt feature this same game plan, but whether Minnesota wins or loses could easily come down to how well Morgan can perform as a passer when he's expected to be one. Minnesota's offense has converted 50.59% of its third downs this season, which ranks sixth nationally. This is in large part due to Minnesota often finding itself in shorter third-down situations. Considering Penn State's overall run defense, odds are Minnesota will find itself dealing with more third-and-long spots that Morgan will have to convert. It won't be easy, as Penn State's third-down defense ranks 15th nationally, allowing teams to convert only 30.37% of the time.

The good news for Minnesota? Third-and-long has been another area where Morgan has performed well. He's only thrown 29 pass attempts on third downs of seven yards or more (again, Minnesota isn't in a lot of third-and-long situations), but of the 95 QBs with at least 25 such attempts, Morgan ranks 11th in completion rate, sixth in on-target rate, and second in TD rate. Of his 29 pass attempts, 13 (44.83%) have resulted in a first down. So they've had success in these spots, but again, they haven't done so against a defense like Penn State's.

How Morgan and the Gophers will perform against Penn State is just another thing we don't know about a team most have yet to meet. On Saturday they'll be looking to introduce themselves to the world with an answer or two.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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