A healthy MarQueis Gray would give the coach some much-needed relief at quarterback.
The Gophers' quarterbacking situation is keeping him awake at night, Jerry Kill said Sunday. But MarQueis Gray can cure his insomnia very simply: Hurry up and heal.
"We need MarQueis -- badly," the Gophers coach said a day after sophomore fill-in Max Shortell threw three interceptions in Minnesota's first loss of the season, a 31-13 setback at Iowa. "This is a real critical week for us. We need MarQueis to get healthy, for a lot of reasons."
The biggest one is just to give Kill and his staff some options at the position. Shortell has done OK as Gray's replacement, Kill said, but the fact that the Gophers are trying to avoid sacrificing freshman Philip Nelson's season of eligibility means Shortell must try not to miss a play. The Gophers could use tailback (and high school quarterback) K.J. Maye for a play or two, "but that's not a long-term solution," Kill said.
Trouble is, after some encouraging improvement the first day or two after he injured his left knee and ankle against Western Michigan on Sept. 15, Gray "has leveled off," Kill said, and still can't do much more than jog. The Gophers have next weekend off before facing 24th-ranked Northwestern in TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 13.
And they have more injury problems than just at quarterback. Cornerback Martez Shabazz remains out because of a dislocated toe, and left guard Tommy Olson is sidelined by a sprained ankle. Tailback and special-teams engine Devon Wright injured a shoulder during a collision on a kick return Saturday, and defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli suffered an elbow injury.
Brock Vereen injured a knee during practice last week, Kill added, and was limited to nickel duty on passing downs. It was one reason Mark Weisman found so much running room around left tackle on Saturday, 177 yards worth on the day.
"We needed Brock Vereen desperately. Rolling him down as the extra guy in the box, with the knee that got hurt [last week in practice], I didn't think it was worth the risk," Kill said. "So we played him in nickel. That hurt us in run support, because he's a hell of a football player."
But a day after the Gophers lost Floyd of Rosedale for the first time in three years, Kill said he was actually encouraged, because this defeat didn't feel like last year's failures. The Gophers were overwhelmed by an offense that got rolling, scoring three touchdowns in six minutes, but successfully regrouped in the locker room at halftime, he said.
"We played better. We settled down, had better intensity," Kill said. "I think [Iowa's coaches] knew we had the capability of coming back."
The Gophers had only 75 yards of offense at halftime, compared with Iowa's 328. But Minnesota actually held the Hawkeyes to fewer yards in the second half -- 46 overall, and only 17 on the ground -- than the Gophers had in the first. Minnesota held the ball for 21:07 of the second half, and had 12 first downs to Iowa's three, exactly the inverse of the first half.
"If you watch the second half on the film, you go, 'Dang, all we had to do was play like this,' " Kill said. "Because we really dominated the second half."
Well, except for Maye's fumble near midfield that killed a drive, or the pair of interceptions that Shortell threw. The second one came one play after Marcus Jones dropped a pass near the end zone; instead of a potential touchdown pass that would have pulled the Gophers within 10, it turned into a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"We had opportunities. It wouldn't have taken much to change that game," Kill said. "We just made too many costly mistakes. Last week, we had zero turnovers; this week, we had four. You take those turnovers out of there, and that's a completely different ballgame."
Phil Miller firstname.lastname@example.org