COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Will Gophers make a quarterback change? A look at key faces involved in a decision. – InForum

ST. PAUL — Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., was the site of the last seismic shift at University of Minnesota quarterbacks.

In 2018, Zack Annexstad was injured before halftime against Nebraska, didn’t return to that midseason game and never made another start. Tanner Morgan stepped in during that 53-28 loss to the Cornhuskers and went on to start the next 45 consecutive games.

On Saturday, Morgan was injured before halftime in Lincoln and didn’t come back. Athan Kaliakmanis came in and helped lead a 20-13 comeback road win to make Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) bowl eligible.

Might this again be the spot where the Gophers have another landmark change at the game’s most-important position?

The spark Kaliakmanis provided was undeniable. With his team down 10-0 at the half, the redshirt freshman helped produce six plays over 13 yards — including completions of 38 and 45 yards — on three scoring drives to turn that double-digit deficit into a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After Morgan was sacked four times in the first half — including the hit that knocked him out of the game — Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca countered by moving the pocket for Kaliakmanis. He was never sacked. He also kept the ball on the read-options, something Morgan rarely does. Kaliakmanis had an 8-yard keeper on his first play of the third quarter and later a 16-yard rush on the game-tying drive.

“He’s so darn athletic,” head coach PJ Fleck said postgame. “He pulls it and he’s out the gate. He is long (at 6-foot-4) and he can extend the ride (on RPOs with the tailback). He’s got a huge arm, he’s really intelligent and he’s fun. He has this presence about him that lives up people around him, too.”

“It’s very similar to what Tanner does,” Fleck continued. “(Kaliakmanis is) incredibly confident, and I thought he played really well. We did things that fit him in the second half a little bit more. I think that is what kind of turned things a little bit for us.”

Given the results in Saturday’s game, it might seem a change is in the making, but the decision-maker is not the legion on Twitter. If that were the case, this would have been done weeks, if not years ago. It comes down to Fleck, who has demonstrated loyalty to Morgan, quick to remind folks that the sixth-year senior is the winning quarterback in program history.

When Fleck shared Morgan’s injury to ESPN2 sideline reporter Taylor McGregor on Saturday, he felt the need to share the injury-induced QB change was not part of a quarterback controversy. He showed how steadfast he has been to Morgan a year ago when the offense struggled, primarily in the passing game during crippling losses to Bowling Green and Illinois.

Fleck has prided himself on building a program that is about more than football and has repeatedly said Morgan has earned the right to keep his spot. Last week he was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Wuerffel Trophy, which goes to the player demonstrating outstanding community service.

Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan looks to pass during the second quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Morgan would later leave the game with an undisclosed injury.

Dylan Widger / USA Today Sports

Fleck has stuck behind Morgan through thick (the dream season in 2019) and thin (the death of his father in July 2021). An ESPN “College GameDay” story Saturday morning on Ted Morgan’s passing harkened to that deep emotion and “Row The Boat” ethos of fighting on. So, it’s hard to see Fleck making a voluntary change at quarterback in the final three regular-season games.

Fleck said postgame Saturday that Morgan suffered an “upper-body injury.” The last time Fleck used that NHL-esque injury description, Morgan had a concussion when forced out of the Illinois loss on Oct 15. He was placed in the NCAA concussion protocol, paving the way for Kaliakmanis to make his first collegiate start at No. 15. 16 Penn State on Oct. 22.

If Morgan has another concussion, he would enter the NCAA safety protocol, which has return-to-learning and return-to-sport checklists. According to the NCAA, the return-to-sport list has five successive bullet points that would need to be met, with guidance that each step typically takes longer than 24 hours. If Morgan has another concussion, the decision on who starts against Northwestern at 2:30 pm Saturday might not be Fleck’s to make.

After Morgan was concussed against Illinois, Fleck had Morgan and Kaliakmanis sit in his office on Sunday to lay out that Kaliakmanis would be in line to start against Penn State. Communicating the situation was Fleck’s primary objective.

In front of 109,813 in Penn State’s White Out, Minnesota had a conservative game plan for Kaliakmanis’ first start. He 41 percent of his passes (9 completed of 22) for 175 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He added seven rushes for 45 yards.

Against the Cornhuskers, Kaliakmanis completed 50 percent (6 of 12) for 137 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. He added three carries for 27 yards. Mo Ibrahim did the heavy lifting, with 24 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns after halftime, but Kaliakmanis’ arm and legs helped ease the load.

Kaliakmanis has shown moxie for such an inexperienced quarterback. He credited having Morgan to learn from, and for teammates such as Ibrahim and center John Michael Schmitz around him. “With guys like that, what is there to freeze over?” he said Saturday.

Kaliakmanis said he’s indebted to Morgan for his help in his two seasons at Minnesota.

“I can’t even put into words what that guy has done for me, every day since I first got here,” said Kaliakmanis, who redshirted in 2021. “He has gone out of his way to meet with me. He is texting me to meet with him. He has done so much for me in my football life. I just couldn’t be more thankful for him. I really hope he’s OK. I really do.”

Kaliakmanis’ father, Alex, also voiced that sentiment.

“QB2’s job is to step up when QB1 goes down and hold down the fort until QB1 is ready to go,” Alex Kaliakmanis tweeted Sunday afternoon. “(Morgan) earned the right to go out on his terms. (Prayers) for a speedy recovery to an amazing QB1! (We are) blessed to be a part of the Golden Gopher Family!”

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