MarQueis Gray eases Gophers past New Hampshire in a rare rout
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It was a new feeling for the Jerry Kill-led Gophers.
Nearly a year after North Dakota State embarrassed the Gophers at home, Kill was able to avoid experiencing another FCS letdown in surprisingly emphatic fashion.
For the first time since Kill took over a year ago, the Gophers were on the positive end of a drastically lopsided rout as they rolled past FCS-Division I squad New Hampshire on Saturday, 44-7, in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium.
"I've been on the other side of it. I've been a I-AA coach and gone into places and won. I always wondered what it felt like," Kill said after the game. "Well I got a taste of it a year go and it doesn't feel very good. You do your job and we did our job today. We know where we're at. There is no room for error."
Recent woes against FCS foes --2-3 record in the past five years -- rapidly became an afterthought for the Gophers.
New Hampshire, ranked 12th in the FCS coaches' poll, was overwhelmed quickly by strong pressure from the "U" defensive line and an onslaught by the offense.
The Wildcats' spread offense was thrown into a tailspin after starting quarterback Sean Goodrich left the game with an injury on their first drive. Back-up Andy Vailas was held to 158 passing yards (18-for-34) and could get his offense into a scoring rhythm only once.
The quarterback change didn't hamper the Gophers' defense.
"Even when we were watching film we thought that the back-up guy was a little more mobile, but they were both similar quarterbacks, so it wasn't too much of an adjustment in the game plan," defensive end D.L. Wilhite said.
Wilhite and fellow defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hageman combined for 3.5 of the Gophers' four sacks. Hageman and Wilhite have been at the forefront of an upgraded output by the Gophers' D-line, with the pair on the giving end of all six of the unit's sacks this season (Hageman, 3; Wilhite, 2.5; Michael Amaefula, 0.5).
The anxiousness that nearly crippled senior quarterback MarQueis Gray in the Gophers' Week 1 triple overtime win at UNLV was almost non-existent. Gray rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He passed only eight times, but completed six of those attempts for 100 yards and another pair of touchdowns.
A botched snap by New Hampshire punter Mike MacArthur on the Wildcats' first possession that rocketed out the back of the endzone for a safety jumpstarted the Gophers' scoring run in the first quarter.
On the next play, following the safety-induced kick, Gray floated a pass down the right side of the field to wide-open receiver Isaac Fruechte, who eased into the endzone for his first career touchdown and the Gophers' first of the game.
For a brief period, New Hampshire's offense was moving with fluidity. Following three failed drives, Vailas took advantage of lagging coverage in the Gophers' secondary, moving New Hampshire swiftly into the redzone. Running back Chris Setian tallied New Hampshire's lone touchdown with a five-yard rush.
But the Gophers, in uncharacteristic fashion, didn't stay put. Gray tucked the ball on the ensuing drive and ran through the middle of the defense for the longest touchdown run of his career (75 yards).
The Gophers went on to score twice more in the half, including a short touchdown pass to Rabe. By halftime, the "U" had opened a 30-7 lead -- the most points scored in a half by the team in six years.
Two more touchdown drives in the second half helped the Gophers finish with 412 yards of total offense, while holding New Hampshire to 231.
Redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood continued to back up his spot as the Gophers' freshly minted top running back. Kirkwood's 70 yards on 17 carries complemented Gray's mobility by creating another potent option for New Hampshire to contend with in the running game.
"Sometimes last year and the year before I found myself questioning my talent, but this year the coaches have built confidence in me and I just feel good running the ball," Kirkwood said. "I feel like I know what I'm doing. I know the plays, so I can move past."
Setian's touchdown late in the first quarter finished off a drive for New Hampshire that had exposed several glaring vulnerabilities in the Gophers' defense, primarily with stopping the pass on the corners.
Pair that with back-to-back quick three-and-outs by the offense and the Gophers were already teetering on the possibility of allowing New Hampshire to overtake the lead.
However, with one play Gray abruptly stomped on the momentum the Wildcats had built, aided by a strong push from an offensive line that redeemed itself for some of its inconsistencies at UNLV.
"The 75-yard run after you score a touchdown, it cuts you at your knees," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "We were OK on him, but he is a good player that makes the (Gophers') offense go."
New Hampshire was within 33 yards on its next drive of providing a much-needed rebuttal. But on the 11th play sophomore safety Derrick Wells broke up a pass on fourth down to end the threat.
The window for a New Hampshire comeback was gone as the Gophers made it into the endzone on consecutive drives to make it 30-7.
2: Number of combined plays run on the Gophers' first two scoring drives.
8: Tackles recorded by Derrick Wells. He owns a team-high 16 this season.
0-for-4: New Hampshire's conversion rate on fourth down.
9/2/2000: Date of the Gophers' last safety prior to Saturday, coming in the Glen Mason-era against Louisiana-Monroe.
44: Total points were the most scored by the Gophers since the 63 they posted against Indiana in 2006.
4: Fumbles committed by the Gophers. Gray lost the ball three times but was able to recover it in all three cases. No. 2 running back James Gillum, who finished with five carries for only one total yard, turned the ball over on a run in the third quarter.
"That's three too many, too. The mistakes we made, the penalties were critical ... There's no excuse for that. Yes, if we want to be good that's part of discipline.
-- Kill, on the Gophers' three penalties for 33 yards. It was an improvement on their 11-penalty outing against UNLV, but two of those were avoidable personal fouls by cornerback Troy Stoudermire (late hit) and defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, as well as a call for an illegal substitution in the first quarter.
"That's all part of it. It's part of college football. I think everybody probably enjoyed a beverage or two. You've got to do whatever it takes, but it has to be the biggest party in town ... It's got to be a big party in the Twin Cities any time we're playing."
-- Kill addressing the crowd turnout. Attendance at Gophers' home games has come under heavy scrutiny, partially a result of sub-par student ticket sales. The Gophers tried numerous promotions leading up to their home opener. Kill and University athletic director Norwood Teague were on campus Friday giving way tickets to students. All incoming freshman at a rally at TCF Bank Stadium last week were provided free tickets. The Gophers announced a crowd of 47,022, with a student section that was close three-fourths filled.
"He's 250 solid and moving like a freight train."
-- Kirkwood, when asked for his impression on Gray's 75-yard touchdown run.
• Gophers -- Mike MacArthur fumbles snap for loss of 15-yards, goes out back of the endzone for a safety, 10:12 Gophers 2, New Hampshire 0
• Gophers -- Isaac Fruechte 27-yard pass from MarQueis Gray, extra point by Jordan Wettstein, 9:54. Drive: 1 play, 27 yards, 0:18. Gophers 9, New Hampshire 0
• New Hampshire -- Chris Setian 5-yard run, extra-point by MacArthur, 0:34. Drive: 8 plays, 76 yards, 2:58. Gophers 9, New Hampshire 7
• Gophers -- Gray 75-yard run, extra-point by Wettstein, 0:23. Drive: 1 plays, 75 yards, 0:11. Gophers 16, New Hampshire 7
• Gophers -- John Rabe 2-yard pass from Gray, extra point by Wettstein, 6:50. Drive: 8 plays, 67 yards, 4:04. Gophers 23, New Hampshire 7
• Gophers -- Gray 11-yard run, extra point by Wettstein, 4:56. Drive: 3 plays, 18 yards, 1:12. Gophers 30, New Hampshire 7
• Gophers -- Donnell Kirkwood 2-yard, extra point by Wettstein, 3:11. Drive: 16 plays, 85 yards, 8:16. Gophers 37, New Hampshire 7.
• Gophers -- A.J. Barker 19-yard pass from Max Shortell, extra point by Wettstein, 6:40. Drive: 12 plays, 86 yards, 5:53. Gophers 44, New Hampshire 7
• WR Andre McDonald suffered an infection in one of his legs in practice early in the week as a result of turf burn, Kill said post-game. The freshman receiver returned to practice on Wednesday, but the Gophers decided to hold him out Saturday as a precaution.
"He could have played today, but because of our situation why do that? We didn't want to take any chances," Kill said.
• DE Michael Amaefula had to be helped off the field in the first quarter with an apparent lower body injury, but returned in the second quarter and later recovered a fumble.
• WR Jamel Harbison is out for the season after tearing his right ACL in the first half against UNLV on Aug. 30. Kill said Wednesday that he is "cautiously optimistic" Harbison will be healthy when the team begins its winter workouts in January.
A string of three consecutive home games continues next Saturday when the Gophers host Western Michigan (11 a.m. Big Ten Network). The match-up is likely to bring back a few memories for Kill, whose staff built familiarity with coach Bill Cubit and the Broncos during three seasons in the MAC at Northern Illinois.