BY PHIL MILLER
The Gopher offense was hurting, and then its quarterback got hurt, too.
Max Shortell fixed it.
Shortell fired touchdown passes on his first three possessions after MarQueis Gray was sidelined by an ankle injury, and the Gophers’ defense survived a Western Michigan rally in the fourth quarter. Minnesota improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2008 with the 28-23 victory over the Broncos.
Gray has a high ankle sprain, head coach Jerry Kill said after the game, and will get an MRI.
Receiver A.J. Barker caught three touchdown passes, the first a 10-yard slant pass from Gray to give the Gophers their first lead.
But with the Gophers offense having problems getting any momentum, Gray was knocked out of the game with 4:20 remaining in the first half, lying on the field after a quarterback scramble. The senior quarterback’s left ankle and knee were injured, and Gray spent the rest of the game on crutches.
Shortell provided an immediate jolt, however, completing a 32-yard pass to Derrick Engel on his first snap. Another 24-yard completion to Isaac Fruechte got the Gophers deep into Broncos territory, and Shortell finished off the drive with a 9-yard pass into the left corner of the end zone that Barker caught over a cornerback.
Barker caught his third touchdown pass of the half on the next possession, a 53-yard romp that gave Minnesota a 21-10 halftime lead.
Minnesota’s first drive of the second half provided one more touchdown pass from Shortell, who hit a leaping Drew Goodger through double coverage for a 9-yard score.
Then it was up to the Gophers’ defense. Western Michigan scored a touchdown with 4:18 to play, a 10-yard completion to Jaime Wilson that pulled the Broncos to within five points. After a Minnesota punt, however, the Broncos couldn’t move the ball, thanks to an illegal formation penalty and a sack by Gophers sophomore Michael Amaefula. On fourth down with 37 seconds remaining, Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder hit Wilson for a 15-yard gain, but he was three yards short of a first down, effectively ending the game.
Shortell finished with 188 yards on 10-of-17 passing. Tailback Donnell Kirkwood gained 110 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career.
The Gophers finished with 399 yards of offense, just missing their third 400-yard game of the season.