Even after the Gophers' 28-23 victory Saturday, Max Shortell still was scrambling. Asked whether he thought he had made a case to become the starting quarterback in the Gophers' next game against Syracuse, he stammered a little, then treated the question like a live grenade. "I don't really want to answer that,'' the sophomore said, looking more uncomfortable than he had all day.
Shortell had shown no such reticence on the field against Western Michigan. He calmly stepped in for injured starter MarQueis Gray with 4 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter and heaved a 32-yard strike to Derrick Engel on his first play. By the end of the half, Shortell had thrown two touchdowns --including a 53-yarder to A.J. Barker -- and bailed the Gophers out of a sluggish start.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill said it probably helped that Shortell, a sophomore, had no time to think about the situation. Both of them could be thinking about it plenty this week, depending on the severity of Gray's injury. Kill, too, ducked out of discussing whether Shortell's performance could merit any changes to the depth chart, but maybe a good QB debate is just what this team needs to stimulate more interest as it continues to figure things out.
On a glorious day, TCF Bank Stadium contained more empty seats than an Olympic venue. Before Shortell came in, a crowd generously announced at 44,921 gave its loudest ovations to legendary tackle Bobby Bell, former player and World War II veteran Ed Lechner and the Gophers women's hockey team that won the NCAA championship last spring.
And after? In addition to sending fans away happy and giving his team a 3-0 start, Shortell did enough to spark discussion about whether he should supplant Gray as the starter. At this point in the Gophers' fitful history, that's a plus.
"It's outstanding that Max was ready for his opportunity,'' Kill said. "When he went in, he didn't have time to think, so he just let 'er rip.
"In the fourth quarter, I said, 'Don't start thinking now. Just play.' He did a good job. There's no question it was a team win, but he certainly stepped up, or we would have been in trouble.''
Gray has a high ankle sprain, at least. When he returned to the sideline, his left knee was heavily bandaged and a walking boot encased his lower leg. He left the field on a cart, pulling around the corner of the end zone just as Barker caught a 9-yard touchdown pass that put the Gophers ahead for good.
Gray applauded his understudy, who had shown similar poise under similar circumstances a year ago. Last season, Gray cramped badly in the fourth quarter in the season opener at Southern California and had to leave the game with the Gophers trailing 19-10. On the second series of his college career, Shortell completed five of eight passes for 80 yards, culminating with a 12-yard touchdown toss to Brandon Green that pulled the Gophers within 19-17. The rally was short-circuited when he threw an interception on the Gophers' final possession, but the 6-foot-6 redhead from Kansas suddenly had people talking.
Saturday, Western Michigan had doused fans' enthusiasm when it recovered a fumble by Gray late in the first half, then scored with 4:37 left to take a 10-7 lead. Gray was injured on the first play of the ensuing drive.
"Our offense was kind of stalled,'' Shortell said of the Gophers, who had run only five plays in the first 10:23 of the second quarter. "I had to step up and get the offense rolling. We've all played in so many games that it's almost second nature to go in there and do what you need to do.''
Kill felt so comfortable with Shortell that he shifted his game plan, opting to open things up and throw more to take advantage of his second-stringer's arm. That could have been risky -- "If something bad happens and you get an interception, they fire the coach,'' Kill said -- but his philosophy of giving all his quarterbacks plenty of practice repetitions left him confident Shortell would handle the job.
Shortell admitted it has been challenging to spend most of this season watching, but he said his job is to remain positive and prepared. He wasn't thrilled about the way he finished the game; he misfired on a couple of passes and forced one into tight coverage for an interception.
He did play well enough, though, to prompt chatter about when he should get his next chance. Kill didn't go down that path, with the seriousness of Gray's injury still undetermined. But he shouldn't fear a little quarterback intrigue, particularly when there are so many seats waiting to be filled.
Rachel Blount email@example.com