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Updated: September 8th, 2012 4:04pm
Zulgad: MarQueis Gray's 'goofy' side returns as relaxed QB leads 'U'

Zulgad: MarQueis Gray's 'goofy' side returns as relaxed QB leads 'U'

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- There was no pass MarQueis Gray threw Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium that signified to teammate Donnell Kirkwood that the senior quarterback appeared far more comfortable than he had been in the Minnesota Gophers' opening game at UNLV.

The change also did not come as Kirkwood watched Gray rush for a game-high 109 yards, including two touchdowns, in a 44-7 victory over FCS opponent New Hampshire.

Rather, it was Gray's demeanor that provided the true indication to Kirkwood that this would be a better day for his teammate.

"To be honest with you, the first game, MarQueis was, I just felt like he was trying to be perfect," said Kirkwood, who rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown as the Gophers won a home opener for the first time since 2009. "This game, I saw MarQueis. The goofy MarQueis, the playful MarQueis, the having fun on the field MarQueis. You can just tell the difference."

In this case, goofy is a good thing.

Kirkwood said that when Gray is operating at his most relaxed he will come in the huddle, call a play and then rattle off a couple of names out of the blue. He will say, "Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell and walk off," Kirkwood said. "He's just a goofy person."

Gray's goofy side was missing as the Gophers opened their season on Aug. 30 with a 30-27 victory in triple overtime at UNLV.

In trying to be perfect, Gray lost his fun side and, more importantly, continued the disturbing trend of not being a very accurate passer. Gray finished 17 of 30 for 269 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

The statistics weren't awful, but anyone who watched the game saw Gray miss on several passes that could have made the game a laugher for the Gophers instead of one that took three overtimes to win.

Gray's play became the primary topic among Gophers fans, and many likely wondered if all the talk about the quarterback's accuracy having improved over last year, when he completed only 50.7 percent of his passes, was nothing more than offseason lip service.

Saturday had to be considered an improvement, although if it was unfair to jump to any conclusions about Gray as a passer after the opener, it isn't fair to make any definitive statements about him as a quarterback after the Gophers beat up on an inferior opponent.

Gray threw only eight passes, completing six of them, for 100 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Gray's first passing touchdown put the Gophers up 9-0 in the first quarter when he connected with sophomore wide receiver Isaac Fruechte on a 27-yard score. The second occurred in the second quarter when senior tight end John Rabe caught a 2-yard score.

"I'll always evaluate a quarterback after I watch film," coach Jerry Kill said when asked about Gray's performance. "There's a lot of things going on in those situations. He certainly made some big plays and after throwing the first pass, getting a touchdown, he did some good things. Did good things with his feet.

"I think he felt better about it. But, again, I'm going to watch the film. At that position, it's kind of like you all evaluating a head coach sometimes, in that you've got be pretty critical if you want to be successful. We'll look at his overall play and evaluate it, grade it and get it better. But he certainly did a lot of things better than he did the week before and that's what we expect out of everybody. Not just MarQueis."

Nonetheless, Kill had to be pleased that his decision to pull Gray from Saturday's game in the fourth quarter and insert Max Shortell was a product of a 30-point lead and not poor performance.

Gray, who was hard on himself following his performance against UNLV, said he was, "A lot more comfortable, a lot more confident," Saturday afternoon.

"I felt like last week, if I would have made those throws, we wouldn't have went into overtime," Gray said. "I was down after that game. But we won the game and that's all that mattered. I knew I was able to make those throws. ... I was down but I just picked myself up this week and continued to play throughout this game."

It also will make for a far more pleasant week for Gray as the Gophers prepare to play host to Western Michigan next Saturday. Gray said he knew he was going to get "shredded" in meetings after the UNLV victory.

That shouldn't happen this time around.

That's thanks in part to Gray's footwork. His feet helped the Gophers get a big lead more than his arm on Saturday. Gray, who added about 10 pounds during the offseason, ran for a 75-yard touchdown in the opening quarter and an 11-yarder in the second.

"I was actually shocked it happened that way," Gray said of his long run. "We worked on it a lot, it was one of our main plays we do throughout camp. But for me to go 75 yards, I never thought that would happen."

Gray's teammate, defensive end D.L. Wilhite, didn't seem as surprised.

"I think Marquis weighs more than me and he's one of the fastest guys on the team," said Wilhite, who is listed at 6-3, 244 pounds compared to Gray's listing of 6-4, 250 pounds. "When he's going, it's hard to take him down.

"I wouldn't want to play against him. That's being honest. I'm glad we have him on our team. He's one of the best athletes I've ever seen in my life. To be that big and that fast, when he's doing his thing, it's hard to stop him."

Kirkwood's favorite moment from Gray on Saturday wasn't either touchdown dash, but rather what was said to him just before the sophomore running back had a 2-yard touchdown run of his own in the third quarter.

"On the touchdown run I had, we broke the huddle and he was like, 'All right now, chunky butt, let's get in.' I'm like, 'That's Marquis for you.' ... He just played like himself, he played like he was in practice. So that was a good thing." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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