Notebook: Gophers QB MarQueis Gray's status once again in question
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers senior quarterback MarQueis Gray's return, after being sidelined for four weeks with a left knee and high ankle sprain, was short-lived.
Gray's status was in question for much of the week leading up to the Gophers' loss on Saturday to Northwestern, though it was assumed that he would be used in at least a limited backup role.
The Gophers originally intended to ease Gray into the game, which they started to do by using him as a receiver on a 16-yard pass from sophomore Max Shortell during the team's initial drive.
However, Gray was needed earlier and more often than the coaching staff had expected. Gray took over at quarterback on the Gophers' second drive after Shortell, who started his third straight game, was forced to the sidelines following a hit to the head on the second play of the drive.
If Gray was still experiencing pain in his left leg, he didn't show any obvious signs. By halftime, he had rushed for 76 of his team-high 86 yards, highlighted by a 25-yard touchdown run to start the second quarter.
The consistency of Gray and the offense fluctuated -- he threw an interception in the second quarter that eventually led to a Northwestern's third and final scoring drive.
But the unit, with the Gophers trailing 21-13, was starting to find momentum in the third quarter when Gray retweaked his left ankle on a run out to the edge of the field. Shortell, who had since recovered, was left to handle the offense for the rest of the game.
"We didn't know if (Gray) would be able to do what he did," Kill said. "That's why we played him a little bit at receiver. We wanted to get him into the game and see how he would react and feel. I think we did everything we needed to do with MarQueis. It's just unfortunate he got injured."
No further details about the severity of Gray's ankle sprain were announced. He will reevaluated when the team reconvenes on Sunday afternoon.
For the second consecutive game, Shortell battled to find a rhythm, posting a 50 percent completion rate (9-of-19, 103 yards). His struggles, like at Iowa, were not entirely of his own doing. Communication along the offensive line was erratic. Centers Zac Epping and Zach Mottla both had several bad snaps, which contributed to five of the Gophers' seven fumbles. The receiving corps also had dips in production, botching a few makeable catches.
However, Shortell's accuracy was unstable. A badly overthrown ball on the Gophers' last significant scoring chance in the fourth quarter, with the offense sitting at the six-yard line, sailed over wide receiver Andre McDonald in the corner of the endzone.
"I've got to give him at least a chance. I can't overthrow that like that," Shortell said. "I've got to give him a chance to make a play. He's a special athlete and that ball just went a lot further than I wanted it to, that's for sure."
The Gophers could be in for another week of uncertainty at quarterback if Gray's injury persists.
Bye, bye redshirt
Six games into the season, the Gophers chose to pull redshirts off a pair of freshmen.
Tailback Rodrick Williams Jr and tight end Lincoln Plsek both played in their first collegiate games on Saturday, making them the ninth and tenth true freshmen to appear this season for the Gophers.
Williams, who had been considered the fifth or sixth man on the "U" depth chart, pulled off a 16-yard gain in the fourth quarter on his third career carry. The play came shortly after starting running back Donnell Kirkwood was roughed up on the previous play. Along with special teams duties, Williams was also inserted on two runs in the first half, picking up four yards on his initial carry before being dropped for a two-yard loss late in the second quarter.
His appearance could further signal the coaching staff's disillusionment with junior college transfer James Gillum. Originally targeted at the onset of the season as the Gophers' potential top option at running back, Gillum has not logged a carry for three straight games. He ran for 51 yards in Game 1 at UNLV, but he totaled nine yards off nine attempts in the next two games after losing his spot to Kirkwood.
In the weeks since, the Gophers have continued to use Kirkwood as their No. 1 tailback, with redshirt sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye being brought in for runs out to the edges. Sophomore David Cobb made his first appearance of the season at Iowa, entering as a late-second half replacement for Kirkwood.
Williams was the sixth tailback used by the Gophers in 2012. It came as a surprise to onlookers that a true freshman would called upon to play for the first time this late into the season, but Kill said he made the move as a result of the team's waning depth.
"Roderick is a very strong, physical young kid. We felt like he could help us with some of the injuries in the kicking game and plus he brings a physical presence at running back," Kill remarked. "We felt, 'Let's give him some experience over these next six or seven games, so next year we don't have as many guys (without experience)."
The same thought process was applied to Plsek. The Waco, Texas native joined senior John Rabe and sophomore Drew Goodger in the rotation at tight end. Plsek's first and only catch came in the first quarter on a nine-yard pass from Gray. The Gophers have two other true freshmen tight ends -- Duke Anyanwu and Maxx Williams -- on their roster that they still intend to redshirt.
"We said, 'Instead of redshirting two or three tight ends, let's play one here,'" Kill said. "To be honest with you, I think it paid off, because I think they both did some good things."
• Starting left tackle Ed Olson left the game after the third play of the second half with an ankle injury and did not return. He was replaced by redshirt sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz.
• Andre McDonald gave an indication on Saturday that, if healthy, he can be a potential go-to target in the Gophers' passing game. In his first game since he was briefly hospitalized on Sept. 20 with a minor heart issue, the freshman wide receiver caught four passes for 33 yards. McDonald has not had any reported problems in the weeks following the original incident. He has been cleared for practice since Sept. 27, but Kill did not give him the go-ahead to play in a game until early this week.