The Gophers trailed North Dakota State by seven points with 2:58 left in the fourth quarter last Saturday. They had the ball at their own 20 and needed a quick, efficient touchdown drive.

Who did they turn to at quarterback? Their true freshman backup, not their junior starter.

That pretty much summed up the state of the Gophers quarterback situation. At the most critical point in the game, Max Shortell got the nod over MarQueis Gray.

Why? Because Shortell had thrown a touchdown pass minutes earlier and, perhaps more important, he just seems more confident as a passer than Gray, who is a wonderful athlete and nifty scrambler but looks unsure when asked to throw the ball.

Shortell ultimately threw an interception that was returned for a game-clinching touchdown, but the fact he was even in that position was more telling than the result.

The Gophers open Big Ten play Saturday at Michigan with more questions at quarterback than when the season began. Gray was largely an unknown, besides his obvious physical ability. But his ineffectiveness as a passer has forced Gophers coaches to use Shortell in a situational rotation that looked more like a revolving door in the loss last week.

Gray is dealing with a toe injury but has not been officially ruled out of Saturday's game. Regardless of his status, Shortell is expected to play, too. At some point, the direction at that position needs more clarity.

Do they stick with Gray as the starter and hope he develops as a passer? Do they platoon them and gradually give Shortell more playing time? Or do they hand the keys to their freshman and build for the future? The opinion here remains option No. 3, but only if Shortell is comfortable with the entire offense. Only the coaches know that.

This isn't a team vying for a conference championship or even a bowl game. They need to make whatever moves necessary to help them long-term. Allowing Shortell to learn on the job could pay dividends down the road.

That's another factor in this decision. Gray is only a junior. Are they going to keep this same arrangement next season? If not and the performance gap between the two doesn't suddenly widen significantly in the next few weeks, they should play the younger quarterback and stop delaying the obvious.

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said this week that Gray remains the starter -- with a caveat.

"That will continue on until we feel like Max gets to a point where he does a significant number of things better than MarQueis," he said. "But MarQueis is a special kid. There are things he does that we really love about him."

The coaches clearly were uncomfortable with what unfolded last week. They shuffled their quarterbacks as if they were playing checkers, switching them even during the middle of series. Maybe it was an act of desperation in trying to win the game, but it looked like something you'd see in high school.

The offense appeared completely disjointed, especially Gray, who had more carries than pass attempts and nearly accumulated as many sacks (four) as completions (five).

To be fair, Shortell hasn't exactly played error-free in his limited role, but he's attempted only 28 passes. We need to see more of him for a true evaluation, but he seems to have a better feel in passing situations than Gray.

Gray's struggles are not entirely unexpected. He's basically relearning the position after playing wide receiver. The process understandably takes time, and Gophers coaches continue to preach patience.

Maybe four games is not enough evidence, but Gray remains so raw as a passer you wonder if that part of his game will improve substantially. He looks uncomfortable in the pocket and struggles with his accuracy -- he's completing only 50.6 percent of his passes.

Gray's ability to elude pass rushers and make plays with his feet cannot be ignored, especially when you consider how poorly his offensive line has played. But if teams employ the same strategy as North Dakota State and crowd the box to contain Gray's scrambling, what is the fallback plan? He has to be effective enough throwing the ball to keep defenses honest.

If not, the Gophers have no choice but to insert Shortell. That's a convoluted way to operate, but Limegrover acknowledged a quarterback rotation "is kind of the world we're living in right now."

"Like a streak shooter in basketball," he said, "if a guy's got the hot hand, you go."

Eventually though, someone has to take the last shot. The Gophers need to figure out who that guy is.

Chip Scoggins •