For the Gophers, Da'Jon McKnight's three scoring catches last Saturday at Michigan State represented more than only 18 points, more than a way to scare one of the Big Ten's best defenses. They were also a demonstration of several distinct skills that MarQueis Gray is developing during his first season as the Gophers' quarterback, and three enormous reasons for optimism about Gray's future.
"He was 100 times better in that game than I've ever seen him before," said Bryan Cupito, who went through a similar evolution as the Gophers starting QB in 2005 and '06. "It took until the middle of my first year before I was comfortable, too, and I was a quarterback my [freshman and sophomore] years, so he's really had to learn it quickly."
And if the game with the Spartans was Gray's midterm -- he completed 19 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns, all career highs -- he's got a decent shot at acing the final. Not too bad, considering Gophers fandom was ready to flunk him out after the season's first month.
"The fans can see what they want to see. Sometimes they don't look through an objective lens," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "That poor kid, he's trying to get experience while playing behind six different offensive line combinations, with injuries at the wide receiver position. It's not like we have a team stacked with great players and he's been holding us back. You have to judge him in the moment -- this is where he is now, and it's concrete progress from where he's been."
He's had to adjust to all that plus, Cupito believes, dealing with how "everything happens so much faster at this level. In practice, you're not getting hit, you take your time, make your reads. On the field, you know you're going to get hit, [and] you know you have two-three seconds to make a decision. It's a huge adjustment."
And one that, judging by his three scores Saturday, he is making. Let's examine the trio of passes, and the improvement exhibited by each.
• • •
Touchdown No. 1: judgment and composure. Gray looks for a receiver, then scrambles to his left, jumps back to avoid a tackle, and lays a 10-yard pass on McKnight's hands. The receiver breaks three tackles and races 64 yards to the end zone.
"He couldn't do that a month ago," Limegrover said. "One of the best part of his development is, when things broke down at Michigan State, he didn't just tuck it and run. He's calmer, seeing the field better. He's looking to see how long he can extend the play, find a better option."
When Gray jumped away from the missed tackle, he had a small running lane to his right and could have simply cut that way and taken a small gain. "But his awareness now can lead to big plays. If he just says, 'OK, I've got a guy in my face, I'm going to tuck it and run,' maybe we get six or seven yards and we don't score on that drive. And maybe we get beat 48-0 -- that's the way the game is these days. But he held in there, found Da'Jon, and our whole team got energized by that play."
• • •
Touchdown No. 2: touch and confidence. Gray executes a planned play, dropping back, looking to his right, then throwing a fade pass high and deep to McKnight in the back corner of the end zone for a 13-yard score.
"He knew right from the snap that's where he wanted to go, and he put it where only Da'Jon could reach it. Great catch," Limegrover said. "His accuracy isn't always right there perfectly every time, but developmentally, he's where you would expect him to be with his experience. And he's letting it go with more fearlessness."
• • •
Touchdown No. 3: patience and awareness. Gray drops back and spots McKnight headed toward a safety who's trying to cover more than one player. Recognizing that McKnight could find open space behind the safety, he waits a beat, then hits the receiver in the back of the end zone.
"We took both inside receivers vertical on short post [routes], then wheeled the H-back [toward the middle]. One [defender] fell off on John Rabe, so the safety was kind of in limbo," Limegrover said. "Because [Gray] held it just a bit longer, and we were able to protect just a little bit longer, Da'Jon came open. That was an example of us being good teammates for once -- the line helped MarQueis find a guy who made a good decision, and he put the ball on him. We just haven't had enough of that this year."
But that game gave the Gophers hope that they will see plenty more.