Max Shortell gives Gophers a lift in win, raising quarterback question
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers football coach Jerry Kill won't say it, but there certainly appears to be a quarterback controversy in Dinkytown after Saturday's 28-23 victory over Western Michigan.
"We won the game," Kill said. "That's all I am going to say."
Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray left midway through the second quarter with what Kill called a high left ankle sprain and did not return.
Sophomore Max Shortell entered with the Gophers trailing 10-7 and took command of the game, throwing touchdown passes on each of his first three drives to guide the Gophers to their third victory of the season -- matching their win total from 2011.
He went on to finish the game 10-of-17 passing for 188 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception.
Shortell had even less to say than his coach about the idea that he should be the team's starting quarterback.
"I don't really want to answer that one," Shortell said, sheepishly.
They got the win, but in classic Gophers fashion, they did not make it easy on themselves.
They gave the Broncos the ball with 1 minute, 32 seconds left in the game and a chance to win, but the defense held to push the Gophers to 3-0.
Gray was down for several minutes before teammates helped him off the field with 4 minutes, 37 seconds left in the second quarter. He eventually was carted off the field from the sideline with his left shoe removed.
Kill said Gray had a high ankle sprain and will have an MRI to check for further damage. He was not made available for comment after the game, but Kill and his teammates said he still maintained his trademark positive attitude.
"We'll just have to see," Kill said.
Shortell's impact on the game was felt immediately, connecting with receiver Derrick Engel for a 32-yard gain on his first play under center -- 3 more passing yards than Gray had for the game.
The hard-throwing sophomore marched the Gophers right down the field and found receiver A.J. Barker in the end zone for a 9-yard strike to give the home team a 14-10 lead.
"When Max went in I said, 'Let's go. Lets get after them a little bit,'" Kill said. "That was a critical part of the game when (Gray) went down. I think when (Shortell) went in, he didn't have time to think. He just let her rip."
These were the first meaningful snaps taken by Shortell this season, having only gotten in during mop-up time a week ago against New Hampshire. But you wouldn't have known it just by watching, as he coolly guided the Gophers to another score before halftime to take a 21-10 halftime advantage.
"He did a good job," Kill said. "There is no question this was a team win but he certainly stepped up."
Shortell is no stranger to coming in on short notice. Last season, Shortell made his NCAA debut in a loss at USC after Gray left the game with cramps. So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that he was once again cool under pressure.
"We've all played in so many games (in our lives)," Shortell said. "It is a game. You just go out there and try to have fun."
After something of a bounce-back game last week against a weak New Hampshire opponent, Gray was largely ineffective under center before getting hurt. He was just 3-of-6 passing for 26 yards and rushed for 57 yards on 11 carries.
The only points by the Gray-led offense was a touchdown pass to Barker that came after the Gophers were gifted field position inside the 10-yard line following a Michael Carter interception.
Other than an opening drive that ended with a 38-yard missed field goal by Jordan Wettstein, the Gophers struggled to move the ball with Gray at the helm. The senior fumbled twice -- making it six on the season -- including one he lost at the 18-yard line that resulted in an easy score for the Broncos.
"Our offense was kind of stalled so we needed to get back on schedule," Shortell said. "With (Gray) going down I had step up and get the offense rolling."
Gray eventually returned to the sideline with his left foot in a walking boot and his left knee wrapped in a bandage. He could only stand on the sideline and watch as Shortell continued to guide the offense to victory, an undefeated start to the season and halfway to bowl eligibility.
"We had a great start, but we are definitely not satisfied," Shortell said. "We are going to come out each week and be ready to play. Right now, our focus is on Syracuse. This game is over."
If Shortell was the star of the game, he definitely is sharing the marquee with Barker. The St. Paul native continued his impressive start to the season, grabbing three TD passes on five receptions for 101 yards. He now has four scores and 231 yards in three games after catching just a single pass a year ago.
"I'm probably one of the only people out there that believed I could have a game like that," Barker said.
The game was essentially turned on its head after Shortell sauntered onto the field. He generated 14 points in under 5 minutes to give the Gophers a 21-10 lead.
An offense that had gone stale with Gray's inaccuracy and predictable quarterback keepers up the middle got new life injected into it with Shortell's accuracy and ability to sustain a drive. Touchdowns were scored on each of Shortell's first three drives and his only real miscue was an interception on an overly-ambitious pass at the start of the fourth quarter.
5: Interceptions on the season after Carter's pick in the first quarter, surpassing last year's season total of four.
11: Players in Gopher history to catch 3 TD passes in a game after Barker did it Saturday. The last player to do it was Da'Jon McKnight a year ago against Michigan State.
51: Jersey number worn by senior LB Spencer Reeves in honor of fallen teammate Gary Tinsley. LBs Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper have also worn the No. 51 this season.
"Un-de-feated," the Gopher fans chanted as the team saluted the fans.
• Broncos -- Kick from Andrew Haldeman was good from 35-yards, 6:07. Drive: 11 plays, 62 yards. Broncos 3, Gopher 0.
• Gophers -- A.J. Barker 8-yard pass from MarQueis Gray, 2:00. Drive: 3 plays, eight yards. Gophers 7, Broncos 3.
• Broncos -- Dareyon Chance 6-yard TD run, 4:37. Drive: four plays, 187 yards. Broncos 10, Gophers 7.
• Gophers -- Barker 9-yard pass from Max Shortell, 1:59. Drive: six plays, 75 yards. Gophers 14, Broncos 10.
• Gophers -- Barker 53-yard pass from Shortell, :30. Drive: three plays, 45 yards. Gophers 21, Broncos 10.
• Broncos -- Antoin Scriven 1-yard TD run, 10:54. Drive: 11 plays, 71 yards. Gophers 21, Broncos 17.
• Gophers -- Drew Goodger 9-yard TD pass from Shortell, 7:13. Drive: 10 plays, 66 yards. Gophers 28, Broncos 17.
• Broncos -- Jamie Wilson 10-yard pass from Alex Carder, 4:18. Drive: 5 play, 66 yards. Gophers 28, Broncos 23.
• QB MarQueis Gray left the game with an ankle injury and did not return.
• LB Lamonte Edwards left the game with an undisclosed injury.
• Backup CB Martez Shabazz was in street clothes with an ankle injury he picked up during practice this week. The next man up on the depth chart was junior CB Jeremy Baltazar.
The Gophers wrap up the nonconference schedule next week with their third consecutive home game against Syracuse. It will be the first game under the lights of the season at TCF Bank Stadium with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
From there, the Gophers head to Iowa to open up the Big Ten schedule and attempt to keep the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Dinkytown for a third consecutive season.