Validation? It’s a victory away for Gophers football

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 7:20 AM

The Gophers have more depth than doubts at QB, and will face the least imposing visitor left on the schedule.

Conditions probably will never be better for the Gophers this year. Well, except for the rain.

A thunderstorm is forecast for Saturday morning in Minneapolis, where the Gophers resume their season against Northwestern, and it's possible that the homecoming game will be played in a downpour.

But in almost every other way, circumstances never will be more beneficial in 2012 for a Gophers breakthrough:

• They're playing at TCF Bank Stadium, where their comfort level is high and they've won four consecutive games (dating to last season) in front of increasingly enthusiastic crowds.

• They've had a week off to heal, to polish up their fundamentals and to focus all the frustration they feel over a 31-13 loss at Iowa into this week's do-over.

• They are facing, with all due respect to the 5-1 Wildcats, the least-regarded Big Ten opponent scheduled to visit Minneapolis this season, a team that, unlike some of the behemoths looming, doesn't figure to own a physical advantage over the Gophers' legions of underclassmen.

• And, given MarQueis Gray's apparent return to health and Max Shortell's growing confidence, the Gophers have more viable options at quarterback than at any time during Jerry Kill's first two seasons.

In other words, if the Gophers are going to be competitive in the Big Ten this fall, if they're going to climb out of the cellar and qualify for a bowl game, Saturday is the day they need to announce it to the rest of the conference.

You know, as opposed to the message that Gophers fans seemed to hear in Iowa City.

"Everybody is [saying], because of one game, 'They ain't worth a damn. They ain't worth a damn,' " defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of the 4-1 Gophers. "I don't want perception to become reality."

Neither do his players, who seem to understand that one ugly six-minute stretch against the Hawkeyes transformed their challenge from intriguing to urgent. The Gophers haven't limited a losing streak to one game since 2009, so they're familiar with the feeling of the ground crumbling beneath them. Stopping that erosion now may end up defining their season.

"This game is big for a lot of reasons," safety Brock Vereen said this week. "We just need to prove that we're better than what we showed last week" in Iowa City.

It's quite possible they are more versatile, if Gray can ignite the Gophers' running game once more, which is critical to keeping Northwestern's every-which-way offense off the field. Minnesota was averaging 210 rushing yards per game with Gray as the starting quarterback this season, putting them among the Big Ten's leaders.

But with Gray on the sidelines the past two games because of ankle and knee sprains suffered Sept. 15, Minnesota has picked up only 208 yards -- total.

"He obviously gives their offense a whole other dimension," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who watched Gray rush for 147 yards last November during the Wildcats' 28-13 victory in Evanston.

Shortell gives the Gophers another dimension, too, because he has established an ability to connect on midrange passes that have historically given Gray problems. The sophomore understudy made some errors at Iowa, throwing three interceptions, and has had some problems with consistency.

But he's also been a far more effective quarterback than he was during Gray's short absence (toe injury) last season, and the notion of finding a role for both quarterbacks no longer seems farfetched.

"I feel I've done pretty good," said Shortell, who has completed 59.3 percent of his passes, six of them for touchdowns. "Obviously, I've missed some opportunities, some chances I want to have back. But our team's done pretty well, and I feel great."

How great Gray feels will dictate how much he plays. Last season at Purdue, Shortell started but Gray took over after the first quarter, and Kill said he could get as many as 20 plays Saturday.

"I'm not going to play a kid that's not [100 percent healthy], not at that position," Kill said. "If he feels comfortable and says, 'Hey, Coach, I'm ready to play,' he feels good, not limping around -- we'll see. ... He's a smart kid. He's not going to say he's ready [if] he's not. He doesn't want to hurt the team."

  • GOPHERS VS. NORTHWESTERN

    11 a.m. today • TCF Bank Stadium

    TV: ESPN2 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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