Gophers freshman Max Shortell, splitting time with starter Marqueis Gray, completed four of eight passes against North Dakota State on Saturday night for 71 yards and one touchdown.

Andy King, AP


Up next: 11 a.m. Saturday at Michigan • TV: Big Ten Network

Gophers' QB spot is work in progress

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • September 26, 2011 - 7:23 AM

Nonconference games are supposed to answer questions, not create them. But the Gophers football team, fresh off a humbling 37-24 loss to North Dakota State on Saturday that closed their pre-Big Ten season at 1-3, head to Michigan this weekend wondering all sorts of things.

The biggest question mark is, when will coach Jerry Kill's seizures finally abate? But on the field, there are just as many mysteries.

Which running back should carry the ball most, and if it's Donnell Kirkwood, can he stay healthy? Can the offensive line keep the quarterback upright, or were Saturday's five sacks evidence of a systemic problem? Can anyone here tackle?

And most notable of all: Who's taking the snaps?

Kill said the coaching staff would examine replays of Saturday's debacle before making any decisions about MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. But it's clear who would be the best signal-caller for the Gophers right now.

It's Gray -- but the one who directed a snappy 13-play, 68-yard opening drive for a touchdown, who completed three of four passes, including one to convert a third-and-9, and rushed for 13 yards on the possession.

And it's Shortell -- the one who took over for Gray on a third-quarter drive and guided the Gophers into the red zone, hitting a 26-yard strike to Marcus Jones and a 21-yarder to Eric Lair.

Unfortunately, neither quarterback could sustain his highest level of play long enough to carry the Gophers past the Bison, leaving the season in jeopardy and the position up in the air. Gray was 2-for-8 through the air the rest of the way and was sacked four times, while Shortell couldn't find running room when he tried to head upfield, and threw the game-deciding interception in the final three minutes.

The problem, Kill said, lies with him.

"We're putting way too much on these kids right now. I'm not blaming anyone -- that's on Coach Kill," the Gophers coach said. "You'd like to be able to protect these guys a little bit. You'd like to be able to just hand the ball off and let 'em learn to play quarterback. But we're not in that situation right now."

No, they're not, and they've discovered a predicament that makes the quarterback choice even tougher. Gray remains uncomfortable at times with passing downfield, so the Bison simply stacked their defense near the line to contain his running ability, not fearing his ability to burn them downfield. It worked; Gray rushed for only 23 net yards.

The North Dakota State defense spread out more when Shortell, more confident about his ability to find receivers than Gray, was under center, but that removes the threat of a big-yardage scramble. Shortell had a net of minus-2 yards on the ground.

One possible solution that Kill didn't sound happy about: Rotating the quarterbacks, as they did on Minnesota's final scoring drive. In the 10-play march, Gray took seven snaps, and Shortell got three. Gray threw one pass on the drive, a screen to Jones that gained 5 yards, and otherwise just handed off to Duane Bennett or David Cobb. Shortell threw twice, an incompletion on a deep ball to Da'Jon McKnight that was easily broken up, and a bullet across the middle to Lair for the touchdown.

"Do I like alternating? No," Kill said. "But I had to do it with four quarterbacks my first year" at Northern Illinois.

Indeed, four quarterbacks threw passes for the 2008 Huskies, and three recorded touchdown passes. Each saw action in at least three games.

Is that the direction the Gophers will go? Coaches must weigh the damage to Gray's confidence if he's replaced, and the possible benefits Shortell receives by playing as a true freshman. The team wouldn't care who plays, Bennett said after Saturday's loss; the players simply want to win.

"We're going to put the best guy out there," Bennett said.

Once they figure out who that is, he means.

Phil Miller •

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