MarQueis Gray took the first snap of the game Saturday, but it was either a tease or a tribute. Because the senior quarterback -- former quarterback -- mostly watched once more, his final collegiate home game ending with the same sort of disappointment he's grown accustomed to by now.
"I don't know. I was just dazed by all those three-and-outs," said Gray, who took a half-dozen snaps, to little effect. He threw one pass, but it was knocked to the ground. He tucked the ball and ran five times and was plowed under every time, finishing with 4 yards. He never caught a pass, never made a big play, never got to lead the way he has prepared for since high school.
Never even fooled the Michigan State defense. "Oh yeah, without a doubt," Gray said when asked if the Spartans were waiting for him to run. "They figured out, as soon as I was in at quarterback, to load up the box" with tacklers.
Gray was supposed to get more than one series at quarterback, he said, a reprise of the Gophers' "wildcat" look that produced two rushing touchdowns for him a week ago at Nebraska. But the offense was sputtering so badly, that plan was scrapped in favor of a pass-first approach.
And that didn't work, either, not against a Michigan State defense that, despite its 6-6- record, leads the Big Ten in fewest yards and points allowed. "We knew that they have a great [defensive] line and they'd be able to get push and collapse the pocket," said freshman Philip Nelson, who completed 10 of 23 passes for 61 yards, with three interceptions. That's nearly an exact match for his 10-23, 59-yard performance in Nebraska last week. "That's where you've got to be able, on the run, to make plays and figure things out."
In the fourth quarter, with the Gophers trailing by 16, acting coach Tracy Claeys sent in backup quarterback Max Shortell, figuring that the sophomore has more experience against a blitzing defense, but his two possessions ended in a punt and an interception.
Big Ten rushing race
The Gophers played no favorites in the Big Ten rushing race, though they may have had an effect on the outcome.
Last month, Montee Ball torched the Minnesota defense for 166 yards, helping him lead the league for much of the season. Saturday, Le'Veon Bell surged past Ball into the league lead with a 266-yard day against the Gophers. That gives Bell 1,648 yards for the season, a 137.3-yard average that won't be easy for Ball -- who now has 1,528 yards, or 127.3 per game -- to match. Each has a bowl game remaining, and Ball will meet Nebraska's defense next Saturday in the Big Ten championship game.
"It was the best game I think I've ever seen him play," said Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "He had the hot hand, and the offensive line was physically dominant up front."
Bell carried the ball on eight consecutive plays during the Spartans' game-clinching drive, the final rush an 8-yard touchdown in which he simply waited for traffic to clear in front of him, then stepped resolutely across the goal line for the touchdown.
Wilhite reached Maxwell for a sack in the first half, giving him 8.5 on the season. That ties him with Nebraska's Eric Martin for second in the Big Ten, behind nine by Ohio State's John Simon. ... Linebacker Aaron Hill scored a 33-yard touchdown after intercepting a Maxwell pass, the second defensive touchdown of the season for the Gophers. Michael Carter had a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown against Purdue last month. The Gophers had not recorded a defensive touchdown since 2009. "I was actually surprised he threw it after he saw me out there," Hill said. ... TCF Bank Stadium attendance was announced as 44,194, though it appeared several thousand fewer fans were there on a day in which the temperature was below 30 degrees at kickoff. ... The Gophers' 96 yards of offense was its worst output since netting 64 yards in a loss to Nebraska in 1974.