Sometimes an injury to a player is a blessing in disguise for a team.
That might turn out to be the case after Gophers freshman Max Shortell got a chance to show his skills Saturday when starting quarterback MarQueis Gray went to the sidelines because of cramps in the fourth quarter. Gray was treated and could have returned to the game, but he didn't play the rest of the way in the Gophers' 19-17 loss at Southern California.
Shortell, who completed seven of 13 passes for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception and also rushed twice for 10 yards, has given the Gophers a new offensive weapon.
A year ago as a wide receiver, Gray proved to be one of the best in the Big Ten when he caught 42 passes for 587 yards, an average of 14.0 yards per catch, and five touchdowns.
Now in the right situations, Gray can go back to his 2010 receiving position with Shortell at quarterback, thus posing a problem for any defense.
Despite his great debut performance, Shortell threw an interception with 53 seconds remaining that kept the Gophers from a possible victory.
The Gophers had the ball third-and-1 on their own 28 when Shortell was intercepted and USC took over on the Gophers 42-yard line. The way the Gophers were moving the ball at the time, they might have set up kicker Chris Hawthorne for a potential game-winning field goal, even though he had missed two first-half tries of 42 and 51 yards.
Coach Jerry Kill was obviously upset as he chased one of the officials as the game ended because it was pretty obvious in Kill's mind that Gophers wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight was interfered with by Southern California cornerback Torin Harris before Harris made his interception, a play that ended the Gophers' chance to score one of the biggest football upsets in the history of the school.
After the game, Kill said it was a good call. But he had no choice to say anything else or he would be subject to a penalty for complaining about the officiating. But the replay shows that interference could have been called, with Harris pushing McKnight as he tried to make the reception.
Should have won
Kill felt it was a game the Gophers should have won.
"We're certainly disappointed. We had an opportunity to win, and I felt like we should have won," Kill said Sunday. "We were a different team in the second half. We got better as the game went on, but we certainly had opening-game jitters. Our processes weren't going very fast early in the game. Our kids just struggled. I think they were a little bit nervous, and we played like it, and it got us behind.
"I'm proud of their performance in the second half. They came out and played the way they were taught. But we've got to do a better job off the bat, and I take full responsibility for that. But we lost the game a lot earlier than the fourth quarter."
The Gophers shut out the Trojans in the second half after trailing 19-3 at halftime.
About Shortell's performance, Kill said: "[Max] came in and was under control and was not nervous, and he did a nice job, there's no question. We missed a checkdown, and we had a couple of things I think Max would have liked to have done differently, but shoot, as coaches we all would have liked to have done some things differently. Besides a couple of checks and a couple of things where we could have got into better plays, I thought he did a really good job in the situation he was put in."
Kill also said the Gophers needed to get the ball more to running back Duane Bennett, who rushed 15 times for 53 yards, a 3.5-yard average.
Asked about the adjustments Kill and his staff made at halftime after not playing well in the first half, Kill said: "When you're struggling and you start to come unglued a little bit, you have to go back to your fundamentals and those kinds of things. What we tried to do is, on offense we probably had too much in for what we could do with the kids we have.
"So we cut down on some of the motions and shifts and tried to make it simpler for the offensive kids. On the defensive side of the ball, we had to make sure we continued to stop the run."
Kill praised Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Robert Woods, who combined for 115 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.
"First of all, we played against a quarterback that is going to be one of the top five quarterbacks coming out [for the NFL draft] next year," Kill said. "A very accurate passer, very good at running their show. You could tell he had a lot of experience. He played at a different level. In our secondary, I think we settled down in the second half and played better football. We blew a coverage and gave them an easy score, and they made some plays in the first half. But in the second half I think we weren't as star-struck as much."
Kill said USC knew the Gophers were young up front, and they knew they were inexperienced at quarterback, and they brought the house.
"They did a lot of stunts and twists, and brought blitzes off the edge. They made it very difficult, had eight and nine in the box, which we anticipated. And I think our kids struggled early handling it. Again, as the game went on, we did a much better job with what they were doing to us."
Now Saturday, the Gophers will be a heavy favorite against New Mexico State, the kind of opponent they need after the struggle at USC. It will give Kill a chance to test some players he couldn't get into the tough game in Los Angeles.
• New Mexico State, the Gophers' opponent Saturday, lost at home to Ohio University 44-24 while allowing 452 yards and gaining 368 yards. New Mexico State quarterback Andrew Manley threw for 362 yards and two touchdowns while receiver Todd Lee caught five passes for 140 yards and one touchdown. Aggies running back Kenny Turner contributed 41 yards rushing and 93 yards on seven receptions.
• Former Gophers athletic director McKinley Boston has been the New Mexico State athletic director since 2004, when he was appointed by former University of Minnesota vice president Michael V. Martin, a native of Crosby, Minn. Martin left New Mexico State in 2008 to become chancellor of LSU.
• The New Mexico State coach appointed by Boston in 2008 is DeWayne Walker, who played for the Gophers in 1980 and '81.
• After his USC team was shut out in the second half by the Gophers, coach Lane Kiffin said: "I never thought that would happen and I would be sitting here talking about it."
• Former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber went through waivers and was put on the Denver Broncos' practice squad.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org