Miller: Kill is all smiles about winning

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2012 - 11:35 AM

A victory with a tall Kansan at the helm, and a Jayhawks loss to Jerry Kill's former team, left the U coach giddy.

Jerry Kill was still jubilant on Sunday about the big victory, the impressive home win over a BCS conference school that was orchestrated by a Kansas native.

But maybe not the victory you're thinking of.

"That game was scheduled by Coach Kill!" the Gophers coach exclaimed, arms in the air in celebration, about Northern Illinois' 30-23 victory over Kansas. "I never had a chance to work [at Kansas], so I wanted to beat them."

The native Kansan even called his successor at Northern Illinois, Dave Doeren, late Saturday night to congratulate him. And the Huskies coach no doubt traded the compliment right back, probably even inquired about Gophers quarterback Max Shortell, who like Doeren is from the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs.

Shortell was everything the Gophers hoped he would be during Saturday's 17-10 victory over Syracuse, a calm and confident presence who, though far from perfect, effectively managed the offense and never made a critical error. "He never rattled, and [Syracuse] tried to," Kill said. "He had the composure you need from a quarterback."

He'll need it this week, too. Kill said Shortell is almost certain to direct the Gophers offense in their Big Ten opener on Saturday at Iowa. MarQueis Gray's left knee and ankle still are too sore to run, and Kill expects the senior quarterback to need at least another week to recover.

"I don't anticipate him playing next week. It would be a minor miracle if he was ready to play," Kill said of Gray.

Kill could tell Saturday how much Gray's injury, suffered while running the ball against Western Michigan a week ago, still bothers him. "We walked out the tunnel together" before the game, the coach said. "I started jogging. I'm 51, and he couldn't keep up with me."

But if the victory over Syracuse proved anything -- besides the fact that the Gophers' habit of inexplicably losing to inferior teams seems to be cured for the moment -- it's that the identity of the quarterback might not be as critical as most observers believed before the season. Gray led the Gophers to two victories to open the season, mostly by carrying the ball. Shortell played the majority of the past two victories, and on Saturday he barely ran at all; his lone carry for more than 1 yard came during a three-and-out in the second quarter.

"It really wasn't by design. Defensively, they defended him a little bit different," Kill explained of Shortell's stay-home tendency. "We were in two-back formation [with fullback Mike Henry guarding his flank] much more than we had been the two or three weeks previous. We felt we knew they would blitz the heck out of us, and that was our best chance to have a little better protection, and a better run game. I think the game plan fit Max but also fit what they did to us. So it worked out pretty well."

Especially since Shortell still was able to pass for 231 yards, and tailback Donnell Kirkwood was able to gain 99 yards and score two touchdowns on the ground. Shortell audibled out of several plays to avoid the blitz and was sacked only twice. He was occasionally fooled when the Orange defense backed out of blitzes, and he wasn't entirely accurate, especially in the second half. "We should have had 30 points and maybe more. We still don't execute at critical times," Kill said, faulting the entire offense and not just the 20-year-old quarterback. "But Max is a new quarterback."

And a promising one, too. Simply avoiding game-changing errors might be enough to keep games close if the Gophers defense continues to play with such energy and intelligence. For the fourth consecutive game, the offense executed a couple of big plays that gained more than 30 yards (with a 32-yard touchdown negated by penalty, too); the defense has yet to surrender a single play that long all season. "The biggest thing we've done is keep the ball in front of us," Kill said.

So perhaps a quarterback controversy isn't inevitable. If Shortell, whose strengths and weaknesses seem to be just the opposite of his fellow quarterback, is as ready to contribute as it appeared on Saturday, maybe a role can be found for both. Maybe he doesn't have to disappear, or send Gray to the bench, once the senior starter is healthy again.

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

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