What was the most impressive part of MarQueis Gray's 75-yard touchdown romp Saturday?
The foot speed he displayed in outrunning three members of the New Hampshire secondary? The physical condition that enabled him to keep from tiring as the yards piled up? The acting ability needed to sell the fake to the tailback? How about the ability to multi-task -- he peeked at the scoreboard as he ran, to keep track of his pursuers?
All were remarkable displays of the talent that earned Gray the job as the Gophers' quarterback. But Gray's coaches were delighted by a different physical attribute: his mind.
"That was a great read," coach Jerry Kill said. "He's taking what the defense gives him."
And that's where the Gophers' quarterback is making his biggest strides. The 75-yard score was not only the longest play Gray has ever been a part of at Minnesota, it was largely due to a split-second decision on his part -- not to mention some precise execution by his teammates, right guard Zac Epping and right tackle Josh Campion in particular. It's a play that a far less experienced Gray arguably couldn't have made at this time a year ago.
The touchdown came on the first play of the Gophers' fifth drive. New Hampshire had just scored on a 76-yard touchdown march of its own to pull to within 9-7, and "I was very concerned at that point," Kill said.
In the coaches' booth, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover had noticed on previous possessions that Wildcat defensive end Randi Vines had been trying to "crash" the backfield, heading toward the quarterback rather than engaging his man, Campion. Meanwhile, the Gophers had stuck almost exclusively to standard handoffs on their running plays; four different tailbacks already had run the ball. So on first down at the Gophers' 25, Limegrover called an option handoff, giving Gray a choice between two plays.
"We had been giving the ball to the running back to see what [Vines] did. But I guess they felt the time was right to call that play," Gray explained. As he came to the line of scrimmage, with K.J. Maye lined up 4 yards behind him, Gray kept his eye on Vines. Campion, though, wasn't watching the man in front of him; he and Epping were making their own read, watching where defensive tackle Jimmy Vailas lined up. That read turned out to be critical, too.
"If he lined up as a 3-technique [closer to Epping], then me and Josh would have double-teamed him up to the backer," Epping explained. "But since he was on the nose [in front of center Zach Mottla], I just came over and blocked him on my own."
When the ball was snapped, the Gophers' receivers stayed outside, faking a screen pass that drew the safeties a step or two away from the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the entire offensive line move to the left. Epping stepped forward, hit Vailas and moved him further left, while Campion froze briefly, allowing Vines to run behind him toward Gray and Maye -- just as the Gophers had hoped.
"It's a handoff to K.J., but if the defensive end crashes [toward him], I pull the ball and run. And that's exactly what he did," Gray said. "If he waits, or goes to me, then K.J. keeps it. But he was headed to K.J., so I took the ball back, and sprinted for my life."
First, he allowed Vines to fly past, biting on the fake to Maye.
"Good play-action -- he tried to tackle the running back," Gray said. "If he doesn't, I get cussed out."
With the ball tucked away, Gray stepped forward into the hole created by Epping's block. Linebacker Alan Buzbee stepped to his right to make a tackle -- and that's when Campion, unengaged after allowing Vines to run by, suddenly reversed direction, moved to his right and knocked Buzbee out of the play. Suddenly, Gray was all alone.
"That was the most space I've ever seen. I was like, 'Wow, just don't get caught.' That's all I was thinking," Gray said of his sprint upfield. He checked the scoreboard to see if anyone was gaining, and when he saw three Wildcats coming, "I tried to lengthen my stride."
He made it easily, setting off a celebration on the Gophers' sideline. And among the coaches, too. Gray, it's obvious, has learned a lot.
"If he doesn't make the right decision, then it's not a very good play," Kill said. "That's why we talk about the quarterback being critical. There's a lot of decision-making."