College Sports

Ex-Kentucky high school star key to one of college football’s biggest games Saturday

One of the weekend’s best college football matchups features a quarterback with strong Kentucky ties.

Former Ryle High School star Tanner Morgan will lead the surprising and undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday at noon in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. ABC has the telecast.

Under third-year head coach P.J. Fleck, Minnesota is 8-0 and ranked No. 13 in the latest AP college football poll and No. 17 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Meanwhile, Penn State is No. 4 in the CFP rankings and No. 5 in the AP poll. As with Minnesota, James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are 8-0 overall, including 5-0 in the Big Ten.

Much of Minnesota’s success can be attributed to Morgan, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback from Union, Ky. Morgan had committed to play at Western Michigan under Fleck until Fleck took the head coaching job at Minnesota. Without even visiting Minneapolis, Morgan accepted Fleck’s offer to play in the Big Ten with the Gophers.

The move has paid off. After being redshirted in 2017, Morgan played in nine games as a redshirt freshman last season. When starter Zack Annexstad was injured, Morgan started the final six games of the season, going 4-2 including a 34-10 win over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. Morgan ended up completing 89 of 152 passes for 1,401 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.

This season, Morgan is seventh in the nation in pass efficiency, with a rating of 180.54. He has completed 65.3 percent of his passes, which ranks 28th among FBS passers. On the year, Morgan is 113-of-173 for 1,761 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just four interceptions.

He was 21-of-22 for 396 yards and four touchdowns in Minnesota’s 38-31 win over Purdue. He threw for three touchdowns in the team’s 40-17 romp over Illinois. Against Big Ten competition, Morgan has thrown for 12 touchdowns with two interceptions.

Penn State is the first ranked team Minnesota has played all season, however. Computer analyst Jeff Sagarin ranks the Gophers’ schedule as just the 82nd toughest in the nation. And while Minnesota is ranked 13th in total defense, Penn State is ninth in that category, allowing just 280 yards per game.

A cousin of former UK and Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, Morgan has prepared extensively for this moment. In high school, Morgan would send videos through “eCoach” to former East Carolina quarterback Paul Troth, who would critique his play.

According to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca found Morgan and convinced Fleck to sign the former Ryle star, who led the Raiders to 9-3 and 12-1 seasons his final two years.

“He’s a kid from Kentucky that had Louisville and had all these people, a lot of local coaches, telling them he’d never play in the Power Five because he wasn’t the biggest guy,” Fleck told Auerbach. “I wasn’t the biggest guy, either. So he and I clicked immediately when I met him. Kirk told me I was going to love this kid because he’s an overachiever. And I love overachievers.”

Can Morgan the overachiever beat mighty Penn State on Saturday? We’re about to find out.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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