After his picking-plays-out-of-a-hat offense made things uncomfortable for the Gophers defense all day Saturday, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit provided one more awkward moment for the Gophers as he left TCF Bank Stadium.
While the Gophers celebrated their 3-0 start, Cubit voiced the ticklish truth about the reason they walked away with a 28-23 victory over his Broncos.
"I thought [Max Shortell] came in and really provided a spark. He was probably the difference," Cubit said of Minnesota's second-string-on-paper quarterback.
When senior starter MarQueis Gray was carted off to the locker room before halftime with an ankle injury, "your whole game plan changes," Cubit said, gift-wrapping a Gopher-sized quarterback debate and dropping it in Jerry Kill's lap. "No offense to Gray, you have a guy who can throw it around a little bit more."
No wonder Kill said afterward of his friend, "I'm glad we won the game, and I'm glad he's getting on a plane."
Nothing distracts a football team and its fan base like a multiple-choice depth chart at the sport's most important position, which is why Kill and Shortell reacted to Max-or-MarQueis questions after the game as if they were being interrogated by enemy soldiers.
But if Kill spends the next week or two defusing as much as coaching, it was worth it, because Cubit was right. The offense seemed to be running out of gas late in the first half when Gray's left leg got twisted under him as he ran into a pile of defenders -- and Shortell was packing jet fuel. The sophomore completed a 32-yard pass down the right sideline to Derrick Engel on his very first snap, then flicked a 24-yarder to Isaac Fruechte a couple of plays later. And in an odd bit of symbolism, the cart carrying Gray to the locker room arrived at the right corner of the end zone at the same moment that Shortell fired a 9-yard pass to the left corner, a nifty bit of playmaking that put the Gophers ahead for good.
One could almost hear the sports talk-radio phone lines lighting up as they kicked the extra point.
Shortell only added to his legend by directing touchdown drives of 45 and 66 yards on the Gophers' next two possessions, doing it with style: A.J. Barker caught a 20-yard pass in a wide-open secondary and galloped the rest of the way for a 53-yard score, his third touchdown of the half. And, with Gray on crutches and watching from the sideline, Shortell placed a 9-yard toss out of reach of double coverage to connect with an old high school chum from Kansas, tight end Drew Goodger, for a score on the first drive after halftime.
"I played against him in baseball when I was younger" in suburban Kansas City, Shortell said, "and we've been really good buddies ever since. ... It was nice to hook up for a touchdown, finally."
Shortell seemed intent upon passing out touchdowns to every receiver, having completed eight of 10 passes for 168 yards and three scores. Max Mania was surely taking hold among the announced crowd of 44,921, and perhaps among his coaches, too.
The magic, though, seemed to subside in the second half, and Shortell even threw an ugly interception. The Gophers didn't score in the fourth quarter, and Shortell misfired on a pass to Marcus Jones on fourth-and-15 from the Western Michigan 34, It was an unusual call by Kill with about six minutes to play, but the coach said they were too close to the end zone to punt but too far, in the steady wind, to try a field goal.
Western Michigan immediately marched 66 yards on five plays to turn the Gophers' 11-point lead to five, and when a Donnell Kirkwood third-and-1 rush lost yardage, the Gophers were forced to punt. That set up a last stand for the Minnesota defense.
"Butterflies. I felt like a little kid," said defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. "Just the fact that we had to make a stop and keep them from scoring to win the game."
They were up to it, putting a nice exclamation point on their first 3-0 start since 2008. Michael Amaefula sacked quarterback Alex Carder on first down, linebacker Keanon Cooper corralled Dareyon Chance (144 yards on 29 carries) after a 2-yard gain on second down, and Michael Carter, who caught his first interception of the season in the first quarter, knocked down a pass on third down. When Jaime Wilson was dragged down 5 yards short of the marker on fourth down, the Gophers could celebrate.
And the debate, one the Gophers don't want to have, could begin in earnest.