LINCOLN, NEB. - Here's how bad Saturday was for the Gophers: MarQueis Gray's fourth-quarter touchdowns meant a lot more to the Cornhuskers than they did to the Gophers.
"That was frustrating," complained Nebraska safety P.J. Smith. "The whole goal was to start out fast and shut them out."
The Cornhuskers, who haven't shut out an opponent since blanking Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl, probably will get over their disappointment. These days, that's about all Gray does.
He's not the starting quarterback, he's been battling injury for two months and the Gophers' season is more mediocre than he hoped. So Gray's pair of short bursts into the end zone against Nebraska's third-string defense didn't do much to salve his mood.
"They really don't mean anything," Gray said of his 1- and 6-yard scoring runs. "We still lost the game."
Still, they provided a long-awaited glimpse of the senior's versatility, an option that the Gophers haven't been able to utilize while Gray has been recovering from a sprained ankle and knee. On a Gophers drive of 58 yards, Gray entered the game with the ball on the Nebraska 1, and lined up as a tailback. Just before the snap, backup QB Max Shortell, under center, suddenly went in motion to his right, and the ball was snapped to Gray, who easily picked his way into the end zone.
Two possessions later, after Alex Keith recovered a fumble on the Nebraska 6, Gray came in again. This time, there was no other quarterback, and he took a shotgun snap and threaded his way up the middle for another score.
"At least we didn't leave Nebraska without scoring anything," said Gray, who had no catches as a receiver Saturday. "But [moving the ball is] something we have to start off with, and not wait until the fourth quarter."
Might the Gophers make Gray a more frequent contributor as a ball-carrier?
"We'll see how that looks in the film room," Gray said. "Maybe we'll build off of it."
The Gophers' injury problems won't go away. Minnesota got some good news when Ed and Tommy Olson were healthy enough Saturday to return to their positions on the left side of the offensive line. But Ed appeared to re-aggravate his ankle injury and had to come out.
His was not the only injury Saturday. Tight end Drew Goodger left the game with a shoulder injury during the first half, and was taken to the locker room for treatment. When he returned to the sideline, his arm was in a sling.
In addition, receiver Marcus Jones, who missed half of last season after having knee surgery, suffered another knee injury Saturday while returning a punt. The team made no announcement about his condition, but he did not return. Brendan Beal also suffered what appeared to be an injury to the same right knee that he has already had surgery on twice.
And offensive lineman Marek Lenkewicz, who entered the game when Olson got hurt, left the game with a leg injury of his own.
Safety Brock Vereen also suffered a minor knee injury, but after putting a sleeve-type brace on his leg, returned to action.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill had never coached in Memorial Stadium before. Despite the score, he said he was impressed by the experience -- and thinks his team should have been, too. "Nebraska's got great fans. They appreciate football, they love football. It's a great environment to play in, it really is," Kill said of the 85,330 strong, the Huskers' 325th consecutive sellout. "If anything, it should help you get excited about playing."
The Gophers converted one of 13 third downs, continually snuffing drives. Nebraska, meanwhile, thrived on third down, converting seven times in 15 tries -- five of them on third-and-7 or longer. "That was a big part of the game. Those are like turnovers," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "When you have a chance to get off the field, third and 7, third and long, you've got to do it."
Sophomore I-back Ameer Abdullah, subbing for injured senior Rex Burkhead, rushed for 79 yards on 18 carries for Nebraska, giving him 1,021 yards on the season, the 32nd time a Husker has reached the 1,000-yard plateau. Burkhead could have played, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, but the Huskers chose not to risk his health with a potential Big Ten Championship Game berth, and perhaps the Rose Bowl, looming.
Donnell Kirkwood's attempt to become the first Gophers tailback to surpass 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006 suffered a setback. The sophomore gained only 11 yards on seven carries, giving him 830 yards, with next week's regular season finale and a bowl game to go.