Miller: U turns to its backup plan

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2012 - 7:49 AM

MarQueis Gray could be out for a month, but Max Shortell proved Saturday he is more than ready to fill in at quarterback.

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Gophers quarterback Max Shortell threw a touchdown pass to Drew Goodger in the third quarter to help beat Western Michigan 28-23 on Saturday.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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MarQueis Gray suffered a leg injury, stayed out of the Gophers' starting lineup for a couple of weeks, rested up during the bye week, and finished the season stronger and better than before.

That was in 2011. Might history repeat itself in 2012? Or will Max Shortell make that story line much more complicated?

Gray, the Gophers' starting quarterback, has been diagnosed with a high ankle sprain, coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, an injury that could keep him out of action for as long as a month. Bad as that news is, it's still a relief, Kill said, because doctors feared ligament damage to his left knee or even, initially, a broken bone.

"He got bent back, where his body was going one way" and his left leg another, Kill said. "His whole leg went completely numb."

An MRI seemed to rule out anything more serious, though athletic trainer Ed Lochrie planned further consultations over the weekend, just to double-check that the knee is OK, Kill said. And while it's too early to completely rule out Gray playing against Syracuse next Saturday night, Kill said, "with what we know and where he's at, we'll get Max ready to go and Philip [Nelson] ready to go, and go that direction until we're told differently."

High ankle sprains commonly sideline athletes for a month, and "I don't think anybody knows the degree [yet]," Kill said. Gray told the coach after the game that his injury didn't seem too serious.

"We'll see if he's swelled up," Kill said, "how he moves on Monday." But the coach pointed to Gray's timeline last year, when he suffered a serious case of turf toe during the nonconference season, as reason to believe that he might not be gone long.

"He's a tough, tough kid," Kill said. "Not very many play after a turf toe in two weeks. It's unheard of. So that tells you a little bit about how tough he is."

In that instance, Shortell filled in at Michigan, and looked like a freshman making his first start in front of a hostile audience of 111,000. He didn't drive the Gophers into Michigan territory until late in the third quarter of a 58-0 loss. He played the first three series the following week at Purdue, but Gray relieved him, and after a week off Shortell returned to his bullpen role.

Shortell hardly looked like that overmatched teenager Saturday. When he took over for the starter, he appeared to drive the Gophers down the field faster than the cart carried Gray to the locker room. He finished the day with 188 yards on 10-for-17 passing, with one interception.

"Most people that go to their second-team quarterback in situations like that don't go boom-boom and score," Kill said. "We don't with that game [without him]. It's very gratifying to see what Max did when he came in."

And what he can do during Gray's absence, too. What will Kill and his coaches do if Shortell continues to impress, if he directs the Gophers to a couple of victories in Gray's absence? That decision could be a month off. But Kill noted that Notre Dame, coached by his friend Brian Kelly, has used more than one quarterback this season, too.

"The way I was brought up, you don't look ahead," Kill said. "Where we're at right now, being 3-0, it's a good thing for our kids. I'm tremendously happy for them, but now we've got to go to the next game and move forward to that. And concentrate on that."

Injury update

Kill said cornerback Martez Shabazz, who didn't play Saturday, will miss a few weeks because of a dislocated toe.

"Shabazz is a guy we miss right now, because he was playing pretty well," the coach said. "We're OK, but we can't afford to have anybody else get damaged in the secondary."

Center Zach Mottla also is out because of an ankle injury and likely will miss another week, Kill said. But right guard Zac Epping -- "He's our best offensive lineman right now, period," Kill said -- moved over to fill in for Mottla, with Caleb Bak taking Epping's spot.

Receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts missed the latter part of Saturday's game because of severe cramps, but Kill said he's expected back against Syracuse.

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

  • related content

  • Gophers-Western Michigan replay

    Sunday September 16, 2012

    The recap: Max Shortell jump-started a sluggish offense with three touchdown drives in relief of injured quarterback MarQueis Gray.

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