Never doubt the healing power of a little applause.
The Gophers fans sitting in rainy TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday clapped at the sight of MarQueis Gray jogging onto the field during the first quarter and joining the Gophers' huddle. They erupted in cheers when Gray split wide to the right, lined up at receiver instead of his usual spot at quarterback, and immediately caught a 16-yard pass from backup, Max Shortell.
"It was nice," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "He was able to catch a pass early, and that got his juices flowing a little bit, got him amped up."
The Gophers' offense, which hasn't scored more than 17 points in a game without Gray in the starting lineup, could use a little amping. So it appears possible that Gray's first catch of the season won't be his last.
"You never know," Limegrover said coyly.
Last week, "playing some wide receiver was a way to get him back on the field if he was not 100 percent. ... But I think you saw, we're better when we can get the ball in his hands, however we do it."
And it makes life miserable for defenses, too. Gray ended up playing half the game at quarterback because Shortell got hit in the helmet and needed to come out. The 22-year-old senior completed seven passes for 66 yards, but also rushed for 86 yards on nine carries, including a 25-yard run up the middle for a touchdown.
The Wildcats were aware that Gray, absent from the Gophers' lineup since spraining his left knee and ankle a month earlier, might be healthy enough to play. They probably didn't know he would be catching passes, though. But the Gophers watched him practice at the position, and it energized the entire team.
"He is a physical force," Gophers safety Brock Vereen said of his 6-4 teammate. "From a defensive standpoint, whenever we play an offense that has a great two-way threat like [Gray], you have to know where he is at all times. I'm sure opposing defenses feel the same way."
Will Wisconsin feel that way? Depends on Gray's ankle, which was re-injured during the second half. The quarterback practiced at both positions on Tuesday, mostly to avoid piling too much work on him taking snaps. Shortell is still the likely starter at quarterback Saturday.
"He can run straight ahead, but he has trouble stopping and starting," coach Jerry Kill said Wednesday. "He'll have some type of role [Saturday], but how much has yet to be determined."Etc.
• One stroke of good fortune for the Gophers: Gray was available to play when Shortell went out after taking a hit to the helmet, and Shortell was OK again when Gray went down later. That allowed the Gophers to avoid once more using third-string quarterback Philip Nelson, preserving the true freshman's redshirt season.
• Freshman receiver Andre McDonald, who had not played since opening night, caught four passes against Northwestern for 33 yards. His role in the offense figures to grow, Limegrover said.
"There's a trust that gets built up as you see a kid produce, not only in practice but as [he] goes on and produces in a game," the coordinator said.