When Jeff Horton took over as interim head coach of the Minnesota football team Oct. 17, his e-mail inbox became flooded with requests to move MarQueis Gray back from wide receiver to quarterback.
Three weeks later, he finally gave many fans their wish, even if it was in limited playing time for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore.
Horton has steadily deflected questions about Gray by saying senior Adam Weber gave them the best chance to win. He said that Saturday, too, but was pleased with Gray’s performance, which included 31 rushing yards on five carries as well as a nine-yard receiving touchdown.
“We talked about doing it this week,” Horton said after the Gophers lost to Michigan State, 31-8. “We worked on it, that package, there in practice. We felt it’d be given the opportunity to work in this game, and I thought it did some good things.”
The move caught nearly everyone off guard, especially the Michigan State defense. Gray’s first play at quarterback Saturday came on the Gophers’ third offensive series, and he handed the ball off to running back DeLeon Eskridge. The defense, though, was watching Gray, so Eskridge ran for 11 yards, his longest carry of the game.
Gray later validated the defense’s choice to watch him as he broke multiple tackles on his carries, all of which went at least four yards.
“Them using MarQueis Gray at quarterback a little was a little bit unsettling for us defensively,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said.
Horton said he planned for Gray to play quarterback in either the third or fourth series, but not everyone on the team knew it was coming.
“When I saw MarQueis at quarterback I was looking like, ‘Wait a minute, is that MarQueis?’” cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. “I saw him in there, and he did pretty good, too.
“If we’re doing good, why not just keep him in there?”
Gray quarterbacked the final three plays of the first quarter, but Weber came back in at the start of the second quarter. The Gophers ran two running plays up the gut — Eskridge on third-and-1 and Jon Hoese on fourth-and-1 — for no gain and turned the ball over on downs.
Completing just two of six passes for 24 yards, Gray proved he has room for growth, but don’t be surprised if he plays more in the final three games.
“I like it because I’m getting more reps at quarterback and it’s just getting me more confidence going into next week’s game and also in the offseason,” Gray said. “I’m having fun right now, and I’m not doing anything too much that I can’t handle.”
As for how Weber handled the decision, Gray said he was encouraging the whole game. Horton said Weber acted like Weber.
“He handles everything better than anybody in this room, probably anybody in the state,” Horton said. “Adam Weber is the ultimate Gopher.”
Horton making light of QB situation
Horton threw a curveball to the critics that have called for playing Gray at quarterback when he said after the game, likely as a joke, that redshirt freshman Moses Alipate will take snaps next week.
“I’m thinking about using Moses more this week too, so I’ll try to get Moses ready,” said Horton, adding that he “could” and “might” start next week.
Alipate playing next week wouldn’t surprise Gray, he said, but tight end Eric Lair chuckled at the possibility.
“Coach Horton’s a jokester,” Lair said. “I don’t know. It would be a surprise. That’s his call.”
Hoese, who Horton said was doubtful this week, started at fullback. Although Horton said he wasn’t quite 100 percent, Hoese had three carries, though he gained just 1 total yard.
“He felt good enough the last couple days of practice where he could play,” Horton said of the senior captain. “He warmed up good before the game, felt good. It was spot duty, but it was good just to get him in there a couple times.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Austin Hahn made his first career start after missing last week’s game with a minor MCL sprain. He filled in for suspended captain Brandon Kirksey.