Donnell Kirkwood learned all he needed to know about Max Shortell when the sophomore quarterback entered the huddle during a timeout. Shortell looked at his teammates with an alarmed expression.
"Coach gave him the play, and he came out there and was like, 'Ohhh ... I don't know the play. Did any of you guys get it?' " Kirkwood said after the Gophers beat Syracuse 17-10 on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. "We were like, 'What?' It's just him playing around before the play clock starts, to get us loosened up."
Doesn't sound much like the "starry-eyed freshman," as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover once described Shortell, who was overwhelmed in his first start at Michigan a year ago, does it? On Saturday, he was relaxed and confident, Kirkwood said, a real grown-up in a 20-year-old's body.
"Max is a different cat. We call him 'Big Country,'" Kirkwood said. "He doesn't come out there tight. If he sees that we're kind of tight, he'll come out there and be relaxed. He's matured before our eyes, I believe."
So does his coach. "We didn't hold back on the game plan," Jerry Kill said after Shortell passed for a career-high 231 yards on 16-for-30 passing. "Our coaches are confident in Max's abilities, and he checked [changed] a lot of plays. ... I thought he did a real good job of managing the ball."
One way he did it was by calling Kirkwood's number a lot. The sophomore tailback carried the ball 28 times, picking up 99 yards for his trouble.
"It felt good. I knew I was doing something positive tonight," said Kirkwood, who scored both of the Gophers' touchdowns on short runs. "Before the game, I don't really know how much I'm going to get. I'm just going out there blind, doing my assignment."
Kirkwood was briefly limping during the second half, allowing freshman K.J. Maye to get a few carries, but mostly, the Gophers' running game was a one-man show.
"Whatever coach keeps putting on my plate, I've got to keep eating," Kirkwood said. "I felt stronger as the game went on. We just kept wanting to pound the ball."A rare sellout
With the exception of a handful of scattered single tickets, Saturday's game was sold out several hours before fans began arriving, said Jason LaFrenz, the assistant athletic director who oversees the ticket office. That's thanks in part to 5,300 seats sold for $10 earlier in the week, but the remaining 1,500 tickets (and 2,000 student tickets) were sold at normal prices in the final days before the game.
The capacity crowd of 50,805 made a big difference, several players and coaches said.
"We came into a hostile environment," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "We got shook up at times with the noise."
Especially on third down, the Orange players said, which likely contributed to their 4-for-13 success rate in that situations.
"That's why I like playing at home," Kill said. "When you have the crowd we had tonight, there's no question the crowd made a difference. The energy was tremendous. And when you try to check plays on the line of scrimmage, that's hard to do."Gray stays busy
As usual, MarQueis Gray was one of the first Gophers on the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.
But this time, he wasn't warming up.
The senior played catch with the other quarterbacks, encouraged the receivers as they went through their warmup drills and chatted for a while near midfield with Kill.
Once the game began, Gray, who started 10 games last season and all three previous games in 2012, wasn't allowed to be just a spectator, however. Kill assigned him to help with signals for Shortell and watch for helpful insights about the Syracuse defense.