The senior QB is supposed to be the leader of an improving team, but his passes were all over the place.
In the second quarter of the Gophers season opener Thursday night, UNLV was penalized for utilizing "disconcerting signals" on defense, a strange call that drew puzzled reactions.
Actually, that phrase also applies to the Gophers performance in key areas that clouded their 30-27 triple-overtime victory in Las Vegas.
The presumed new-and-improved MarQueis Gray looked as erratic as ever throwing the ball. Their special teams were horrendous, and they committed 11 penalties, converted only three of 15 third-down opportunities and displayed a lack of discipline at critical moments.
Yes, a win is a win, especially on the road in the first game of the season. Nobody should ever apologize for that, but let's also be honest: The Gophers needed three overtimes to beat a bad team from an inferior conference with a freshman quarterback who looked completely overmatched in that setting. Internally, they must realize that type of performance won't be nearly enough once the competition stiffens after a layup against New Hampshire in the home opener next Saturday.
The Gophers produced some positive developments that deserve recognition, too. The defense generated a pass rush and created turnovers, two major areas of deficiency in recent years. The running game looked solid with Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum. And the overall team speed and athleticism appear better.
But Gray's performance and general sloppiness in all areas left a nagging feeling that can't get overlooked in the afterglow of a 1-0 start. The Gophers film review should be a long, uncomfortable exercise that provides some balanced perspective.
Especially for Gray. Whether he battled first-game nerves or rust or whatever reason offered, he simply did not display the kind of improvement as a passer that we heard so much about throughout fall camp. Gray routinely overthrew his receivers and missed at least three potential touchdown passes on throws that a senior quarterback should complete.
He regrouped in overtime with a pair of touchdown passes to tight end John Rabe, including in the second overtime after UNLV inexplicably failed to cover Rabe. Give Gray credit for that. But the Gophers could have taken control of that game long before overtime if Gray had showed a modicum of touch on his passes.
He missed a wide-open Rabe on the first drive and then had his next pass tipped and intercepted. He overthrew a wide-open Andre McDonald in the third quarter after the defensive back fell down, a glaring misfire in what should have been a walk-in touchdown.
Gray completed 17 of 30 passes for 269 yards. He also rushed for 68 yards on 17 carries. Statistically, that's not bad, but it should have been significantly better. Gray is the Gophers' undisputed leader, their best player and a guy widely respected inside the program, but his inconsistency as a passer remains maddening.
As a junior, he completed only 50.7 percent of his passes and ranked 93rd nationally in passing efficiency in his first season as a starter in a new offensive system. That can't happen again this season. He needs to improve his completion percentage to 60 percent or higher and just make the routine plays.
The Gophers certainly didn't help Gray with untimely penalties and miscues. They committed false-start penalties twice on third-and-2, putting themselves in obvious passing situations. They had a muffed punt and costly pass interference penalty by senior Troy Stoudermire along with two personal fouls on defense. They also missed a 32-yard field goal and averaged 35 yards on seven punts.
But they still won, which ultimately is what counts, not style points. Jerry Kill and his staff will attempt to clean up the mental mistakes and undisciplined penalties. Those things should be correctable. No doubt they also will stress the positives.
The Gophers have more talent than last season and should win more games. But they can't play that way against better teams, especially their senior quarterback.
The success of this team rests largely on Gray's shoulders and his ability to become a more accurate passer. One game in, that's still a big question mark.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org