Two of a kind OK for running backs, not for quarterbacks

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2011 - 12:51 AM

Two quarterbacks. Two running backs. One's a luxury. One's a problem.

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Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood scampered into the end zone for a first-half touchdown against North Dakota State.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Two quarterbacks. Two running backs.

One's a luxury. One's a problem.

The Gophers' dormant running game suddenly flourished Saturday, with Donnell Kirkwood joining Duane Bennett as the power/finesse combination that the Gophers had envisioned before the season.

Kirkwood piled up 70 yards on only 10 carries, and twice made heady plays that resulted in touchdowns. Bennett added a season-high 74 yards on 13 carries, keeping the Gophers' offense moving even after Kirkwood was slowed when his hamstring tightened up again.

"The offense was rolling. The line was moving them back," Kirkwood said of his strong start, which included 68 yards before halftime. "It was kind of easy work for the backfield. The holes were there."

Late in the half, Kirkwood got a good angle on an NDSU linebacker and got outside first, romping down the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown.

"We ran the ball better tonight," coach Jerry Kill said.

But they passed much worse.

Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray managed only 53 yards through the air, completing just five of 12 passes with an interception that was returned for a touchdown just before half.

His running game eluded him, too; North Dakota State bottled him up for just 23 yards on 13 carries. He was replaced for a series in the second quarter by freshman Max Shortell, and when the starter took a bad sack early in the second half, Gray and Shortell began splitting time, one or two plays at a time.

"We were scrambling to try to get back into the game," Kill said of the move to Shortell, who directed one scoring drive that ended with a clutch fourth-down pass across the middle to Eric Lair for a 20-yard touchdown.

But Shortell, handed the ball with 2:58 left and a chance to drive for the game-winning score, instead threw his second career interception, which was returned 40 yards for a game-clinching score.

So who's the Gophers quarterback now? Kill deferred a decision.

"We'll take a look at a lot of things," Kill said. "Do I like alternating? No. But I had to do it with four quarterbacks my first year at Northern Illinois."

Regional rivals will remain

The prospect of playing so many native -- and presumably motivated -- Minnesotans was a worry this week. "I'd rather play somebody else, you know," Kill said.

But the Gophers, like most universities playing at college football's top level, intend to schedule one opponent from the FCS ranks each season in order to ensure they have at least seven home games each season. And those FBC opponents, for the most part, are going to be Midwestern.

"We feel strongly about having our FCS opponent being a regional school," said Marc Ryan, the senior associate athletic director who handles football scheduling.

Ryan has already completed the Gophers' nonconference schedules through 2014, and has lined up FBC-level opponents through 2016.

Other than next year's visit by New Hampshire, all the FCS opponents are Midwestern: Western Illinois in 2013, followed by Eastern Illinois, South Dakota State and Indiana State.

Stoudermire injured

Troy Stoudermire, the Big Ten's all-time leading kickoff returner, didn't handle the job for the Gophers on Saturday. That's because of a fracture in his wrist, which required the senior to play with a cast on his arm.

"It was pretty evident as the game went on [that] he had trouble throwing it in there," Kill said of the cornerback's cast. "Even on the defensive side, he struggled. He practiced with it, but it's different in a game when you have to throw it in there."

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