The Gophers don't know/aren't saying if MarQueis Gray will play Saturday, throwing a dose of uncertainty right back at Northwestern.
MarQueis Gray is about "60 to 70 percent" healed, has returned to practice with his teammates and might even play Saturday against Northwestern.
But that's just between us, OK? Please don't tell the Wildcats.
"They're going to have to find time to [prepare] for both quarterbacks," said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers defensive coordinator. "Just like we are."
Yes, Northwestern will present a similar keep-them-guessing quandary when the 5-1 Wildcats visit TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, because they frequently shift starting quarterback Kain Colter to receiver, using sophomore Trevor Siemian to throw the ball.
The Gophers offer the same two-QB dilemma for Northwestern's defense this week, but for a different reason: Gray, Minnesota's senior starter, is slowly returning to form after spraining his left knee and left ankle Sept. 15 against Western Michigan. Gray took snaps for the first time since the injury on Sunday, and wasn't as sore a day later as the Gophers had feared. He was back on the field with a new knee brace on Tuesday, and practiced a little harder -- showing that he's roughly "60 to 70 percent" of the player he was before the injury, Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. The Gophers hope he will continue to improve, and especially become more confident in his knee's stability, as the week goes on.
So will he play, or will it be backup Max Shortell, who led the Gophers to victories over Western Michigan and Syracuse, and a loss at Iowa, during Gray's absence?
"If we were playing tomorrow, he wouldn't be ready," said Kill, who noted a slight limp in Gray's movement. "But we'll see how things progress. I would say we're cautiously optimistic that he can be available for some situations."
That might mean starting him and monitoring his condition, ready to switch to Shortell at the first sign of lingering soreness. It might mean giving Gray a series or two here and there, working him in slowly after nearly a month of being idle. It could mean sending him in on short-yardage situations, forcing the Wildcats to account for a huge, but elusive, ball-carrier in the backfield. Or it could mean playing Shortell, making Gray the emergency backup, and giving him another week to get healthy and in shape again.
Game-plan that, Wildcats.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you what we're going to do," Kill said -- partly out of gamesmanship but mostly because he seems genuinely uncertain about whether Gray will be healthy enough. "You have a kid that hasn't played in three weeks, hasn't run for three weeks. I don't know what his stamina is going to be."
Northwestern needs some stamina just to get ready; their coach believes the uncertainty gives the Gophers an edge. "I've been real impressed by how Max has stepped in there. MarQueis is a great player. He's a difference-maker," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They are different, so the challenge is on us. It's a great advantage for the Gophers, but we'll be prepared for both."
As far as Shortell is concerned, he's the quarterback until he's told otherwise. "It's tough to say [whether] MarQueis is going to be healthy, but being the backup, you have to focus like you're going to play every week," the sophomore said. "You have to game-plan like you're going to be the guy. On that note, it's like any other week."
It's not like any other for Claeys, who said it's rare for a team to put two quarterbacks in the game at once, as Northwestern does, and let the defense try to puzzle out who will take the snap and what he'll do with it. Colter has thrown 68 passes, Siemian 120, but Colter also has run the ball 64 times and caught 14 passes.
Versatility means unpredictability. Defensive coaches hate that. "Right now, I just want them to be honest [prepared] on the snap of the ball," Claeys said. "We'll address, 'Hey, he's there, he's over there,' on game day. We're working on the calls, on what they like to do no matter who's the quarterback."
They know that challenge is coming. The Wildcats don't know what the Gophers will do, because Kill himself doesn't know.
Or does he? Is it possible Gray already has reclaimed his starting spot, or been definitively ruled out for Saturday, and the coach is telling a game-week fib?
"I would never do that," Kill joked with reporters, "because you guys would prosecute me."
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