Sandell: Not yet time to be overly concerned about Gray's passing woes
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MINNEAPOLIS - MarQueis Gray isn't oblivious.
The senior quarterback is well aware his inconsistent passing in the Gophers' season opener last Thursday at UNLV was largely to blame for the three overtimes needed to finally secure a 30-27 victory.
For much of the first four quarters, multiple passes from Gray sailed out of reach of his open receivers. Several potential trips into the endzone were spoiled. Gray's 17-of-30 completion rate didn't express that the majority of those botched throws were the result of self-inflicted problems.
"This is our second year in this offense. I felt we should be putting up more points than we did last week, but it was mainly my fault," Gray admitted Tuesday. "I was overthrowing balls. It's something I need to work on and I have been doing it."
After breaking down the film, Gray can be seen overthrowing nine passes that at the very least should have been easily contended for by his intended receiver.
Overexcitement, not the hesitation that plagued his game last season, Gary claims, was at the root of his struggles.
"I've been hitting those throws all camp. It was just anxiousness of being back out there," he said.
Grand conclusions about Gray's long-term success or failure this season as the Gophers' top signal caller can't be drawn from Game 1. It isn't time to overly berate him for his obvious shortcomings last Thursday and begin the campaign for his successor. No one could have reasonably expected Gray, after a year wrought with constant passing woes, to be suddenly consistently on target and always in control.
But his immediate battle with keeping his mind in check was both worrisome and surprising given the clear strides he had made in the offseason and in fall camp, primarily with his accuracy.
Rolling out off the pocket on a play action call, Gray rushed a throw on the Gophers' initial drive that badly missed John Rabe streaking towards the endzone free of a defender -- a sight that became painfully common throughout the night.
Two plays later it was the opposite problem. Gray waited too long to unleash the ball and the pass was tipped into a defender's hand, severing a drive that had been running with impressive smoothness.
It wasn't until overtime that Gray was able to completely recover from the abruptly failed drive and stop trying to overcompensate.
"No matter how much you say to a kid, 'Hey, relax, have fun," when you're in that situation, and there was so much build-up, that he needed a few things to go well for him early in the game," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "He had the interception early and I think he immediately started pressing."
However, though the glaring accuracy problems have to be brought to the forefront, Gray provided enough positive signs in the opener to validate that the perceived improvements in camp weren't without a level of merit.
With his ground production capped at a relatively minimal 68 yards off 17 carries, he threw for 269 yards -- the second highest total of his career and the most by a Gophers quarterback in the first game of a season since 2004 -- and spread the ball around to nine different receivers.
Five of those receivers completed plays of 13 yards or more (A.J. Barker, 40, 39, 22; Derrick Engel, 33; Marcus Jones, 30; Rabe, 25; Devin Crawford-Tufts, 22, 17; K.J. Maye, 13) -- an outcome few would have predicted entering pre-game.
Gray also made throws when needed in the game's crucial stretch run. Back-to-back touchdown throws to Rabe propelled the Gophers' late rally, though arguably it shouldn't have come down to that.
Confidence and the lack thereof crippled Gray at times in 2011. That wasn't true at UNLV. In the past a shortage of trust in his arm and his receivers caused him to feel the need to make up ground with his feet, many times unsuccessfully. Instead, he wasn't shying from attempting to find an open man deep downfield. Gray tried to force several throws, but never did the game appear out of his control.
"I'm sure he got frustrated a couple times," coach Jerry Kill said. "I think we all did, but at the same time you keep your composure ... I didn't see anybody when the chips were down going, 'Oh, here we go again.' Last year that's all I saw."
"I didn't see that at all. MarQueis hung in there and we made some plays at the end of the game. "
Unchecked emotions and being overanxious, especially in a win, can pass as an excuse in Week 1. A rehash of the same the line a week later after similar issues arise in a team's home opener against a lower division, out-of-conference opponent, won't be as easy to embrace.
When the Gophers meet New Hampshire of the FCS on Saturday, Gray will be expected to shed his shaky tendencies and replicate, at least at a higher frequency, the success the offense had versus the Rebels in overtime.
That starts with getting into a rhythm within the first two drives, while avoiding moving too quickly as he did in Las Vegas.
"He wanted to have that kind of signature game right off the bat," Limegrover said. "That's always a good example of a guy trying to do too much is the overthrows. Instead of giving them a chance to catch the ball he's trying to make sure it's a home run. I can almost guarantee you he won't be doing that this week."
Gray has remained levelheaded about his mistakes and concentrated on remedying them in a manner that makes Limegrover's guarantee seem realistic. But he has to prove that his calm, internal off-field and in-practice demeanor is capable of translating on a play-to-play basis to game-time situations.
How he handles this could be the difference between the Gophers' third consecutive sub-.500 regular season and a potential bowl run. If he falters Saturday against the Wildcats the pressure will become increasingly insurmountable.