Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
BY PHIL MILLER
Max Shortell's first three possessions on Saturday finished in the end zone. But the Gophers didn't get there again after their first drive of the second half, a second-half near-shutout that gave Western Michigan a chance to rally. The Broncos had the ball with 92 seconds left, and trailing by 28-23, but a penalty, a sack and an incompletion helped the Gophers hang on to their lead.
So what changed? Did the Broncos suddenly start defending Shortell better?
Not at all, Gophers coach Jerry Kill said, with one exception: a great individual play by cornerback Lewis Toler, who got position on A.J. Barker and outjumped the Gopher receiver for an interception.
Otherwise, though, the only thing that changed, Kill said, was the Gophers' play-calling. "When we got to the fourth quarter, I wanted to use as much clock as we possibly could, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that," Kill said of Minnesota's final two possessions, which included 12 rushing plays, two passes, and a sack. One ended on downs, when Kill elected to run a passing play to Marcus Jones that fell incomplete. The other drive finished with a punt, setting up Western Michigan's final, and futile, drive.
"It wasn't that we said, 'Hey, we're not going to throw the ball, but it was one of those things where we're clicking off seven, eight yards a pop running the ball," primarily by Donnell Kirkwood, Kill said. Kirkwood collected 45 of his 110 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
"With our defense, and them no-huddling, if we can keep them on the boundary -- it's about winning the game," Kill said. "We felt we were in a position to win the game with what we were doing."
He wishes the drives had ended with scores, but Kill said he had only one regret about the strategy. In the final two minutes, with third and one at the Broncos' 43, Western Michigan's defenders were waiting for another Kirkwood handoff. The play lost three yards, forcing the Gophers to punt.
"I wish we'd have thrown the play-action (pass) there," Kill said.
As MarQueis Gray was laying face-down on the TCF Bank Stadium turf, Gophers doctors feared the worst: a broken left leg.
But the senior quarterback's injury turned out to be far less serious, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said Sunday. An MRI on his left leg found no broken bones and no structural damage to his knee. Gray's injury is believed to be a high ankle sprain, and while that's a condition that normally requires two to four weeks of recovery, Kill pointed out that Gray has returned from injuries quickly in the past.
"He's a tough, tough kid," Kill said of his starting quarterback. "He bounced back off turf toe (last season) pretty good, (and) most people don't."
The Gophers, 3-0 after yesterday's 28-23 victory over Western Michigan, began preparation for next Saturday night's game with Syracuse, and Kill sounded as though he doesn't expect Gray to be in uniform. "With what we know and where he's at, we'll get Max (Shortell) ready to go and Philip (Nelson) ready to go, and go that direction until we're told differently."
Gray was taken to the locker room on a cart after the second-quarter injury suffered while he tried to carry the ball for additional yardage, and spent the second half on crutches. "He got bent back, where his body was going one way," Kill said. "His whole leg went completely numb."
But Gray told Kill after the game that the injury wasn't serious, and athletic trainer Ed Lochrie tentatively confirmed the diagnosis after consulting with physicians about Gray's MRI. Lochrie plans additional consultations, Kill said, but for now, the Gophers are proceeding as though Gray will return within a few weeks.
"High ankle sprains are usually a month," Kill said. "Now, how bad the sprain is, is (the question). There are different degrees. I don't think anybody knows the degree (yet). We'll see if he's swelled up, how he moves on Monday."
Shortell stepped in for Gray and led the Gophers on three consecutive touchdown drives to earn the victory. "It's very gratifying to see what Max did when he came in. We don't win the game" without him, Kill said. "It's gratifying to do that, but our whole team has got to pick it up as we go here."
Kill sounded more worried, actually, about the loss of cornerback Martez Shabazz, who will miss a few weeks with a dislocated toe. "Shabazz is a guy we miss right now, because he was playing pretty well," the coach said. "We're OK, but we can't afford to have anybody else get damaged in the secondary."
Center Zach Mottla also is out with an ankle injury, and likely will miss another week, Kill said. But right guard Zac Epping -- "he's our best offensive lineman right now, period," Kill said -- moved over to fill in for Mottla, with Caleb Bak taking Epping's spot.
Receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts missed the latter part of Saturday's game with severe cramps, but Kill said he's expected back against Syracuse.
An interesting game, Minnesota's 28-23 victory over Western Michigan, and it sets up an interesting week -- and season, really -- for the Gophers. With Max Shortell thriving in MarQueis Gray's ankle-sprain absence, coach Jerry Kill will be asked about the backup quarterback all season long. Even if Gray comes back strong and plays well, they'll be asked about carving out a role for Shortell and his accurate passing.
Meanwhile, a stiff wind and no-man's-land field position caused Jerry Kill to take an interesting gamble in the fourth quarter.
With just under six minutes to play and Minnesota leading by 11, the Gophers had the ball on the Western Michigan 34, facing fourth-and-15. That set up either a 51-yard field goal or a very short punt.
Kill chose neither, in part because of the wind.
"I don't want to take a shot at snapping the ball, in case something (bad) happens with the punt game," Kill said. And Jordan Wettstein had already missed a 38-yard field goal into that wind, so kicking it was out.
But Kill sent his kicking team out anyway, and the Broncos set up for a kick. Then holder David Schwermann stood up, Wettstein split wide, and Western Michigan hurriedly called a time out, its second of the half.
"We made them use a timeout, which hurt them later on," Kill said.
During the delay, Kill decided to run another play rather than punt.
"If you try to pooch punt it 15 or 20 yards and it goes (into the end zone), they're going to start at the 20," he reasoned. "I felt at that time, we (could get) a guy open. We knew they were going to play cover-one, and we felt we could take a shot."
Quarterback Max Shortell's pass to Marcus Jones fell incomplete, however, giving the Broncos good field position. Western Michigan drove 66 yards in just five plays, putting the Gophers' win in jeopardy. Minnesota was bailed out when its defense held the Broncos on fourth-and-18 on their final drive.
Even though it failed, Kill judged the risk a good one. "If we throw and catch it, people say it's a good thing. We don't do it, it's bad coaching," he said. "We didn't execute it, so I'd call it bad coaching. But I'd do it again."
BY PHIL MILLER
The Gopher offense was hurting, and then its quarterback got hurt, too.
Max Shortell fixed it.
Shortell fired touchdown passes on his first three possessions after MarQueis Gray was sidelined by an ankle injury, and the Gophers’ defense survived a Western Michigan rally in the fourth quarter. Minnesota improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2008 with the 28-23 victory over the Broncos.
Gray has a high ankle sprain, head coach Jerry Kill said after the game, and will get an MRI.
Receiver A.J. Barker caught three touchdown passes, the first a 10-yard slant pass from Gray to give the Gophers their first lead.
But with the Gophers offense having problems getting any momentum, Gray was knocked out of the game with 4:20 remaining in the first half, lying on the field after a quarterback scramble. The senior quarterback’s left ankle and knee were injured, and Gray spent the rest of the game on crutches.
Shortell provided an immediate jolt, however, completing a 32-yard pass to Derrick Engel on his first snap. Another 24-yard completion to Isaac Fruechte got the Gophers deep into Broncos territory, and Shortell finished off the drive with a 9-yard pass into the left corner of the end zone that Barker caught over a cornerback.
Barker caught his third touchdown pass of the half on the next possession, a 53-yard romp that gave Minnesota a 21-10 halftime lead.
Minnesota’s first drive of the second half provided one more touchdown pass from Shortell, who hit a leaping Drew Goodger through double coverage for a 9-yard score.
Then it was up to the Gophers’ defense. Western Michigan scored a touchdown with 4:18 to play, a 10-yard completion to Jaime Wilson that pulled the Broncos to within five points. After a Minnesota punt, however, the Broncos couldn’t move the ball, thanks to an illegal formation penalty and a sack by Gophers sophomore Michael Amaefula. On fourth down with 37 seconds remaining, Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder hit Wilson for a 15-yard gain, but he was three yards short of a first down, effectively ending the game.
Shortell finished with 188 yards on 10-of-17 passing. Tailback Donnell Kirkwood gained 110 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career.
The Gophers finished with 399 yards of offense, just missing their third 400-yard game of the season.
It's the nature of a coach, particularly one with a rebuilding job as big as Jerry Kill's, to see the flaws in his team first. And so it was Sunday, when Kill aired a laundry list of worries in the wake of the Gophers' most lopsided victory since 2006, as I detailed in today's Star Tribune. Fumbles, penalties, drops -- the coach even held up a memo pad with three or four pages of dense notes, his list of items, he said, to take up with his coaching staff in Sunday's post-mortem.
But even a perfectionist like Kill had to admit that there were plenty of aspects to Saturday's game that pleased him.
"I was tired of not being good in the punting game," Kill said, and voila -- Christian Eldred was steady, if not spectacular, at putting a little distance in his punts.
"I don't want to drop punts, either," Kill said, and A.J. Barker took care of that one. The junior receiver from DeLaSalle High returned three punts for 47 total yards, and now leads the Big Ten with a 14.0-yard average after two games. "Barker did a good job on the returns," Kill said.
He wanted to cut down on penalties -- well, being a coach, he wants to eliminate them. But after committing 11 infractions, many of them at the worst times, in Las Vegas and handing the Rebels 86 yards, the Gophers committed only three Saturday for 33 yards.
He wanted to establish the run and avoid getting into a run-and-shoot duel with New Hampshire. The Gophers called 52 running plays and threw only 14 passes.
And Kill had encouraging words for several players, in particular defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. The junior from Washburn High had three tackles, two sacks, and strangled New Hampshire's attempts to run the ball. The Wildcats had 68 yards on the ground, on 32 carries, an average of 2.1 yards per carry.
The best part? "He'll keep getting better," Kill said. "He's not even close to what he'll be."
He complimented Derrick Wells, too, for learning the defensive gameplan so thoroughly in just his second game as a safety. "I was concerned about (Wells') abilities to make calls," Kill said, "but he did very well."
So, must have been a happy film session Sunday, right?
Ha. That's not how coaches work. "As soon as you get something fixed," Kill said, "something else pops up that needs to get fixed next week."
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