He looked like the same old MarQueis Gray when he spotted an opening and burst into the clear on Saturday. And he looked like the same old, old, old MarQueis Gray when he caught a pass, too.

The senior quarterback, who spent his first two Gophers seasons catching passes from Adam Weber, returned from an ankle and knee injury Saturday by lining up wide once more. This time, he hauled in a Max Shortell throw, reminding the fans in TCF Bank Stadium what a versatile athlete he is.

"We didn't know if he would be able to do what he did. That's why we played him a little bit at receiver -- we wanted to get him into the game and see how he would react," coach Jerry Kill said. "We had a good package for him, both at quarterback and at receiver. If Max had [stayed] in there, we'd have done a little bit of both."

But Shortell was hit in the helmet during the Gophers' second drive. Gray took over, and immediately seemed to revitalize the offense with his running ability. The Gophers' lone touchdown in the 21-13 loss to Northwestern came on a 25-yard romp up the middle by Gray.

"I wasn't surprised at all. [His left leg] is probably still bothering him, but he doesn't show it," said tailback Donnell Kirkwood, whose 73 rushing yards complemented Gray's 86. "Same old 'Queis. He ain't going to change. That's why you love him."

The Wildcats defense didn't love him, though, and Gray, who was not made available after the game, sprained his ankle again (although this injury is apparently lower and less serious) late in the third quarter, putting the game back in Shortell's hands. The sophomore responded by driving the Gophers more than 80 yards, and inside the Wildcats 4, with five minutes to play. The drive stalled, however, leaving the Gophers with a fourth-and-goal.

Minnesota settled on a fade pass to freshman Andre McDonald on the left side. But Shortell's pass sailed high above McDonald's head and out of bounds, killing the drive.

"I've got to give him at least a chance. I can't overthrow that like that," Shortell said.

Freshman debuts

The Gophers, already populated largely by underclassmen, got a little younger Saturday. Running back Rodrick Williams and tight end Lincoln Plsek, both true freshmen from Texas, played for the first time, ending their planned redshirt seasons.

Williams played on kick coverage against the Wildcats and picked up 18 yards on three carries as Kirkwood's backup, while Plsek caught a 9-yard pass from Gray.

Kill compared Williams, a high school teammate of defensive tackle Scott Ekpe, to a couple of former Gophers standouts after the game.

"You look at the great players here, you look at Marion Barber and [Laurence] Maroney coming through there -- he's a 238-pound running back," the coach said of Williams, of Lewisville, Texas. "We felt, let's give him some experience over these next six or seven games, so next year, we won't have so many [inexperienced] guys."

Same goes for Plsek, from Waco's Reicher High. "We said, instead of redshirting two or three tight ends, let's play one a little bit here," Kill said. "We chose those youngsters, and to be honest, I think it paid off."


• Facing a fourth-and-11 from the Northwestern 36 in the second quarter, the Gophers tried a fake field goal rather than attempt a 53-yard kick. Holder Peter Mortell picked up the ball and ran left but was tackled 6 yards short of the first down.

• The announced attendance was 49,651, though the 50,000-capacity stadium was only roughly two-thirds full.