Preview: Gophers in for a tough night versus Syracuse's potent offense
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Who: Syracuse Orange (1-2) at Gophers (3-0)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805).
TV: Big Ten Network.
Line: Syracuse by 1
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 6-9). Syracuse -- Doug Marrone (4th season, 18-22).
Series: Gophers lead 2-1
Last meeting: Eric Ellestad converted a 35-yard field goal to preserve a 23-20 Gophers' overtime victory at Syracuse's Carrier Dome in their 2009 season opener.
Last week: With Western Michigan up 10-7, Gophers starting quarterback MarQueis Gray was lost for the game with a leg injury on a second quarter drive. For a moment, fears arose that the Gophers would gradually collapse. But backup Max Shortell stepped in with relative ease and guided the offense to three straight touchdown drives. Western Michigan had an opportunity to win the game on it final possession, but a well-timed tackle by CB Michael Carter severed the Broncos' last threat and upheld a 28-23 victory. As a result, the Gophers are 3-0 for the first time in four years and one of three remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten.
At stake: Nine games remain and a flurry of struggles are bound to sprout up, but Kill has already notched a notable accomplishment by showing off the Gophers as a team in forward motion. Set aside criticism about the competition faced and note that the "U" has matched its 2011 win total in three games. But Kill's team is just beginning to encounter the schedule challenges that await them. Until the Gophers prove their success can be sustained against higher caliber opponents, their fast start will be viewed with skepticism. Saturday marks the Gophers' first match-up this season with a major BCS-conference opponent and final obstacle before the start of Big Ten play. While Syracuse's record doesn't show it (1-2), the Orange will be the best team, talent-wise, that the Gophers have faced so far this year. Syracuse fell short in tight contests against Northwestern (42-41) and then-No. 1 USC (42-29) before escaping with its first win last Saturday at the expense of Stony Brook (28-17).
Gophers: Nursing a sprained knee and high ankle sprain suffered last Saturday, Gray was listed as "questionable" on the team's weekly injury report, which was released Thursday. As of Wednesday, Gray had yet to run on the injured leg, but was showing progress. It is likely his role Saturday will be anything beyond potentially serving as a backup. Freshman WR Andre McDonald was hospitalized Thursday for what is thought to be a minor heart issue. He was later released that night. The Gophers would not provide details on McDonald's status apart from saying he is questionable to play Saturday. Starting senior C Zach Mottla returned to practice Tuesday after sitting out last week with a sprained ankle, but Kill said Wednesday that he was still recovering. The Gophers are hopeful he can be available against Syracuse. Zac Epping has shifted over from RG to fill Mottla's place. CB Martez Shabazz will be sidelined for at least another week with a dislocated right toe. LB Lamonte Edwards, injured against Western Michigan, is questionable with an undisclosed injury. OL Joe Bjorklund, who did not play last week, is also questionable. Freshman WR Jamel Harbison is out for the season as he rehabs from a torn right ACL.
Syracuse: Orange CB Brandon Reddish is day-to-day with a "lower body injury." WR Adrian Flemming has been recovering from a high ankle sprain since fall camp and has yet to play this season. He is considered questionable for Saturday. TE Ron Thompson (hip) is out for the year. WR Jeremiah Kobena underwent surgery for what the University called an "upper body injury." Kobena will likely miss several weeks. WR Kyle is sidelined for the season with a "lower body injury." A "lower body injury" will keep DT Ryan Sloan out for the year. FB Myles Davis had surgery for at the end of August for a "lower body injury" and will miss the season.
Three things to watch
Chance to make it interesting: The Gophers don't have a "quarterback controversy." Yet. Shortell will make his third collegiate start Saturday. Kill refuses to speculate on his team's long-term future at quarterback, but Shortell has an opportunity to further boost his standing as a legitimate option under center. While Gray is sidelined, Shortell gives the Gophers a chance to test his arm in ways they can't do with Gray. The sophomore quarterback was impressively composed in his two spot appearances this season, including 188 yards passing and three touchdowns in relief of Gray last Saturday. But how will his assumed development translate to being inserted as the starter, with an entire week to dwell on his upgraded responsibilities? It got to him in first start, albeit in a more extreme situation. The then-freshman Shortell and the Gophers' offense collapsed almost from the initial snap, as they were steamrolled on the road in a disheartening 58-0 loss to Michigan. Shortell isn't the same raw, inexperienced player he was a year ago, but has he improved enough to handle the offense for an entire four quarters? OC Matt Limegrover thinks so. "It's a confidence factor," Limegrover said. "He's been through it all for a year now. He's not a rookie anymore. He's not starry eyed."
Keeping the offense in gear: A year ago at this point in the season, the stumbling Gophers were averaging only 22.3 points and 378.3 offensive yards per game. That has not been the case this season. The "U" offense has shown it can put up points, as well as yards. The Gophers rank a respectable fifth in the Big Ten in total offense (429 ypg) and sixth in scoring offense (34 ppg). Up-tempo scoring will be needed to match Syracuse. Bolstered by a 41-point outing in their season opener, the Orange have averaged 32.6 points per game. With Shortell starting, it will be interesting to watch, after a week to game plan, how the Gophers' offense changes around their sophomore quarterback's preference to pass out of the pocket. You won't see the Gophers shy away from running the ball. Establishing a strong ground presence behind TB Donnell Kirkwood and Gray has been a key reason for the offense's success this season. But without Gray, there needs to be at least one or two players that fill the void and help shoulder carries with Kirkwood. The sturdy 6-foot-6. 235-pound Shortell isn't opposed to tucking the ball and taking off, but he obviously isn't going to do so at the rate that Gray is accustomed to. This could be No. 2 TB James Gillum's chance to have an impact after being a non-factor in back-to-back games (nine total yards). Look for speed options Devon Wright and K.J. Maye to be used at a higher rate in the backfield. Syracuse's base defensive formation (4-3) doesn't differ much the one the Gophers' use, so surprises are likely to be kept to a minimum. However, the Gophers acknowledge the step up in competition they will face Saturday. "(The Orange) are very, very athletic ... They are the most athletic group we've played," Limegrover said. "They're aggressive and they get after it and they're going to go find the football. Our guys have their work cut out for them. This is a different level now."
Slowing down the attack: Western Michigan's pass-first tendencies were expected to give the Gophers' secondary its first major test of the season. Consider that test passed with surprising efficiency. Alex Carder threw for 209 yards, but had numerous potential big gains eliminated by tight defensive shadowing on his receivers. The secondary continues to be strength for the Gophers' defense -- a development that didn't seem plausible entering the year. Headlined by the rise of safety Derrick Wells, the secondary has recorded at least one interception in each game this season. The Gophers will surely need another strong outing from the unit Saturday. Syracuse senior QB Ryan Nassib, second in the nation in passing yards, has thrown for an average of 379 yards per game with a 66 % completion rate (97-of-147, three interceptions). But stopping the pass won't be the Gophers' main issue. Western Michigan caught the Gophers off-guard by running the ball 38 times. The "U" D-line and LBs were slow to adjust and Western Michigan's offense kept itself in the game until it was forced to stick with the pass for most of the fourth quarter. The Gophers' rush defense, primarily the LB corps, has to be improved to take pressure off the secondary in the passing game. DE Ra'Shede Hageman and the D-line will be needed to keep Nassib on guard and forced to make quick passes. If given leeway, Syracuse is loaded enough to cause damage. "They have tremendous speed. When you look, they are faster than the people they've played," DC Tracy Claeys said. "I think they run awfully well. It'll be a good challenge for us to see how well we can hang with them in the secondary."
The call: Syracuse
The time has come to pick against the Gophers for the first time this season. It can't be denied that the Gophers have shown considerable progress -- more than some thought possible at this phase in Kill's rebuild. But letdowns are going to happen and Syracuse is dangerous enough to be the cause of one on Saturday. The Gophers and Syracuse are likely to get caught up in a close, high scoring game. It's hard to know if the Gophers, with a new starting quarterback at the helm, will be able to keep up. The "U" defense is vulnerable in the middle and that could hurt them against Syracuse.