The U quarterback the crowds were willing to toss to the side a week ago broke a rushing record and notched his first win.
Minnesotans are never hasty in the demand for a new quarterback. We waited until Max Shortell led his first touchdown drive against Southern Cal to demand that the freshman take over the Gophers and junior MarQueis Gray return to his previous assignment as a wide receiver.
The noise over this continued in Week 2, when the Gophers made enough mistakes to be upset 28-21 in the home opener by New Mexico State. Gray threw a pair of interceptions and missed a couple of receivers at important times.
The fact that Shortell was a shaky 2-for-7 passing in his brief playing time did not end the conviction of many Gophers followers that he was the immediate answer (rather than the long-term one) at quarterback.
On Saturday, coach Jerry Kill was back on the field that he had left by stretcher a week earlier. It was cool and cloudy, reducing the threat of dehydration for the coach. His stress level also should have been reduced by a much stronger effort from his players -- and No. 1 on that list was Gray.
The opponent was Miami (Ohio), a team that Kill and his staff last encountered in the 2010 Mid-American Conference title game. Kill's Northern Illinois outfit was upset as a 17 1/2-point favorite.
There was a greater incentive than revenge for the new Minnesota coaches: They were trying to get a first victory in a third try in this new, immense challenge to turn around a Big Ten program.
The Miami preparations were made largely with Kill in the hospital. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover put together a plan that emphasized simple throws and great use of his marvelous legs for Gray.
Gray came out making quick throws to the edge to wide receivers. He started 8-for-9 for 146 yards, and the Gophers were leading 13-3 with 5 minutes left in the first half.
Miami got back in the game with a touchdown in the closing seconds of the half, it was tied 16-16 midway in the third quarter, and then Gray took charge with runs from the shotgun that were swift and instinctive.
The Gophers went 60 yards in 10 plays for the lead touchdown. Gray had five runs for 47 of those yards.
Duane Bennett's blocked punt and touchdown gave the Gophers a 29-16 lead, and they held off a last-minute Miami drive for a 29-23 victory.
Kill's first win mirrored Tim Brewster's first -- a 41-35 overtime victory over Miami (Ohio) in 2007. Gophers followers seem confident that's the last comparison to be made between these coaches.
Gray might have been as grateful as his coach for the coolish afternoon. MarQueis had to leave both the Southern Cal and New Mexico State games with leg cramps. On this victorious afternoon, his golden wheels never failed him.
Gray finished with 25 carries for a net of 171 yards. He threw for only 17 of his 163 yards in the second half.
The Gophers had 29 first downs total, and 16 in the second half. Gray rushed for eight of those 16.
"Rickey Foggie would've been proud, with all those runs he used to make,'' said Kill, of the Gophers' mid-'80s star quarterback.
It was another star quarterback -- Sandy Stephens -- who saw his rushing record fall. Stephens held the record for the Gophers with 160 yards rushing in a 23-20 victory over Michigan on Oct. 28, 1961, at Memorial Stadium.
Asked about breaking an All-America's record, Gray said, "They told me about it after the game,'' meaning the record, not Stephens' historical significance for the Gophers and college football.
Sandy's accomplishments included leading the first two victories in a four-year (1960-63) winning streak vs. Michigan.
These days, beating the RedHawks -- a MAC contender -- is an unquestioned accomplishment for a Minnesota program again trying to escape from oblivion.
How about the legs today, in the cool weather?
"No cramping,'' Gray said. "A couple times I thought I might have a problem, but the trainers did a great job getting me back in the game.''
So 25 carries, 171 yards, no real issues?
"My legs were good at the end of the game,'' Gray said. "Now, I'm feeling it.''
It was soreness soothed by a victory that was not only Kill's first as a Big Ten coach but Gray's first as a college quarterback.
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. firstname.lastname@example.org
|Los Angeles - LP: Z. Greinke||1||FINAL|
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