Shortell has 'a long ways to go,' but Gophers happy with his progress
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers sophomore quarterback Max Shortell wishes he could have a redo on several passes in his third career start last Saturday against Syracuse.
It wasn't as if his performance was sub-par.
Showing impressive composure in his first start of the season in place of injured senior MarQueis Gray, Shortell passed for a career-high 231 yards with no turnovers and mounted two key touchdown drives to help keep his team undefeated on the year.
But Shortell's accuracy had its fleeting moments. He completed 16 of his 30 attempts, mixing an array of well-timed passes with a spattering of overthrows and throws at the backs of his receivers. While seven of his attempts either were dropped or bounced off the hands of the 'U' receivers, Shortell was quick to accept the blame.
"We weren't on the same page (at times)," Shortell said. "A couple of those were flat out behind them. They were completely my fault. They were catchable not nearly where I wanted them. That's definitely my fault."
Though Shortell is shouldering more criticism than may be warranted, the offense did botched numerous scoring chances in their 17-10 victory that could have potentially made their lead much more comfortable in the latter minutes of the second half.
Avoiding those types of missed opportunities will be crucial when the Gophers open Big Ten play on the road against border rival Iowa on Saturday.
"We should have had 30 points, maybe more. We still don't execute at critical times," coach Jerry Kill said. "We're not going to be able to miss two field goals. We're not going to be able to have a touchdown pass called back or we're not going to win."
"We have no room for error. Our kids understand that. That's the approach we've taken all year, and we've been able to get away with a few things, but as the year goes, you can't let that happen."
Shortell had his miscues. Reminders of his relative inexperience were apparent as he periodically rushed too quickly to make a decision after the snap or needlessly forced a pass.
However, Shortell's night was considered a success, because he proved he could handle the added pressure of being a starter.
All week he was reminded of his first start, when the Gophers imploded in a 58-0 loss at Michigan in 2011. With the offense back in his hands almost a year later, Shortell was finally able to replace the sour memories of that game with a start that ended with a much better result.
"He wasn't happy at the end of the day. (Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski) was on him and myself and Coach Kill, because he has a long ways to go still," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "But he got over that initial hump. There's a confidence now ... Getting that monkey off his back was real important. He's relaxed and he's feeling it, so I'm excited about this week for him."
Shortell, who will start again as Gray continues to recover from a severe knee and ankle sprain, is in for a major test at hostile Kinnick Stadium, as is the rest of the offense.
Dropped passes hadn't been much of an issue for the Gophers until they met Syracuse. With the pocket passing Shortell under center, the receiving corps was more active downfield than they had been in the previous two games. Receivers A.J. Barker, Isaac Fruechte, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Marcus Jones each had at least one reception for a gain of 13 yards or more, but all four muffed passes on occasion.
The missed catches were a concern for Kill and he confronted his receivers with the demand that the problem be remedied by Saturday.
"The ball may be a little bit off the spot. You gotta be able to catch that ball. That's what you play receiver for," Kill said. "So we've gotta improve. Have we moved forward with that a little bit? Yeah, but we gotta get much better, and they were notified of that on Sunday."
• Speakers have been set up along the sidelines of the Gophers' practice field this week as the team tries to simulate working under the conditions they will face Saturday at Iowa. The Gophers have not won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999.
"You can never prepare with it exactly how it is, but we try to make it worse as much as we can," Kill said.
• Besides noting that the Gophers are 4-0, one of the biggest surprises of the season so far has been the play of the defense. For a team that only had eight takeaways last year, they have already totaled 10 (nine interceptions, three fumbles recovered). The Gophers rank 11th in passing efficiency defense (93.18), which takes into account an opponent's passing attempts, total yards, yards per catch, interceptions and touchdowns.
• After being used primarily as a center, redshirt freshman Jon Christenson was shifted to left guard last week to add a layer of depth, with backup Joe Bjorklund still on the mend from a concussion. Bjorklund has returned to practice and is expected to play Saturday, but Christenson is likely to stay at left guard as sophomore starter Tommy Olson is projected to be ruled out with an ankle injury.
"Now that we have (redshirt sophomore) Zac Epping at center and (sophomore center) Zach Mottla getting healthy, we didn't want Jon to get bogged down," Limegrover said. "We started working Jon at left guard. When Tommy got tweaked up it was just natural transition. Jon is such a smart kid that he didn't skip a beat.