MarQueis Gray is still the Gophers' starter, but freshman Max Shortell's first action was inspiring.
Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray struggled in the first half against USC on Saturday, but he had played better in the second half until being sidelined because of a hand cramp. That opened the door for backup Max Shortell, who directed a TD drive.
LOS ANGELES - MarQueis Gray finally got his wish Saturday. He's the new Adam Weber.
Gray is the Gophers' starting quarterback, with responsibility for reading defenses, commanding the huddle and making the offense go. And he's got one more leftover from Weber's reign, too: a precocious, people's-choice understudy.
Yes, the overriding irony of the Gophers' 19-17 loss to No. 25 Southern California on Saturday is that Gray, the object of fan infatuation throughout Weber's junior and senior seasons, didn't last one game as the starter before circumstances elevated freshman Max Shortell into a what-if superstar, challenging Gray's supremacy. And if Shortell had rallied the Gophers to an opening-day upset, rather than leave a pass where USC cornerback Torin Harris could wrest it away for a drive-killing interception, the grass-roots clamor for a depth-chart do-over would have been unmistakable.
As it is, coach Jerry Kill fueled a Day 1 debate by choosing Shortell to lead the Gophers' final drive, 91 yards from the end zone and 2:04 to play, even though Gray had recovered from cramps and was standing available on the sideline. The call came down to rhythm, Kill said, since Shortell had just engineered an 83-yard touchdown drive, and a concern that Gray's hand cramps might cause a fumble or bad pass.
Shortell, only two weeks beyond his 19th birthday, "handles things pretty well," Kill said. "I felt once we got the momentum going, we had a great shot."
Saturday's home opener with New Mexico State gives Kill and his staff an opportunity to choose between the two once again, though there really is no decision to make. Gray has trained for nine months to take over the position, showed improvement -- and the elusiveness as a runner that makes him so unique -- as the game wore on, and has the confidence of his teammates, a factor Kill isn't likely to discount after only three quarters on the field.
That doesn't mean Shortell sits and waits for Gray to go down again, however. Kill's staff has shown a winningness to incorporate more than one quarterback into the game plan -- even with the talented Chandler Harnish at Northern Illinois' controls the past two seasons, the Huskies gave playing time to a second QB in nine games -- and Shortell's pocket presence makes him a good changeup for the starter.
"The offense started rolling in the second half with MarQueis, when I stepped in," Shortell said. "It was doing some good things, and I kept it rolling."
His confidence in a relief role was undeniable; Shortell matched Gray's total of six double-digit-yardage completions in only one quarter, including the Gophers' longest passes from scrimmage, a 23-yarder and a 22-yarder, both to fellow freshman Marcus Jones.
The abrupt end to Gray's day, however, made his own fourth-quarter performance merely hypothetical, a shame since he clearly improved after halftime. The Gophers pared back some of their pre-snap theatrics in the second half and dropped much of the pretense in passing situations. Gray received the ball in the shotgun formation, stood in one spot and went through his checks until he found an open receiver or tucked the ball and ran.
It worked. Gray completed two of three passes in his final two drives, scrambled for another 18 yards, and had the Gophers offense moving again. It's a crude measure, but Minnesota's per-snap pickup was 3.9 yards in the first half, and 6.0 in the third quarter, comparable to Shortell's 6.6-yard performance in the fourth quarter. He also never turned the ball over, an important pregame goal.
Still, the game was a loss, and Gray was stung by his part in it. "I'm not proud of today at all," he said. "For me to catch cramps late in the third quarter and sit out the fourth quarter, it's just something that is going to be hard to swallow. I'm going to have to get back next week and be prepared."
Prepared for the Aggies, certainly. But also prepared for life with an intriguingly talented backup -- this year's version of, well, himself.
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org
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