Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray spent the days leading up to Saturday’s game answering critics about his inaccuracy and lack of composure in last week’s season opener.
He spent Saturday afternoon silencing them.
Gray lit up New Hampshire’s defense for four touchdowns, all in the first half, in the Gophers’ home-opening 44-7 win over the Wildcats at TCF Bank Stadium.
It was Minnesota’s first win against a Football Championship Subdivision school since 2009.
Inaccurate and jittery in Week One against University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Gray responded by turning in one of the best performances of his career.
He was poised in the pocket, went through his progressions and fired one dart after another to uncovered receivers.
“The defense, they did a great job getting the ball back,” Gray said. “I was down [after the UNLV game], but I just picked myself up this week and continued to play throughout this game.”
He continued to play almost flawlessly, too. Gray finished with 100 yards, two touchdowns through the air and two on the ground. He rushed for 109 yards, eclipsing the century mark for the fifth time in his career — a new school record for quarterbacks.
“He certainly made some big plays,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “He did some good things with his feet. I think he felt better about it.”
The first of those big plays came early in the first quarter. After Minnesota took a 2-0 lead on a safety, Gray — on his first throw of the game — connected with a wide-open Isaac Fruechte for a 27-yard touchdown. Late in the frame, Gray called his own number on a zone read and ran 75 yards up the middle for another score.
“We worked on that play a lot,” he said. “For me to go 75 yards, I never thought that would happen.”
It was more of the same in the second quarter. Gray connected with tight end John Rabe for a two-yard touchdown, ran for an 11-yard score and stuck the proverbial fork in the Wildcats. Minnesota took a 30-7 lead into halftime.
“We were just in more of a rhythm as an offense in general,” Rabe said. “I feel like everyone was more calm. ... Once we started relaxing, getting in our groove, we were a lot better than we were at UNLV.”
The Gophers (2-0) cruised in the second half en route to an easy victory. Minnesota pass-rushers injured New Hampshire starting quarterback Sean Goldrich on the opening drive. They hounded backup Andy Vailas until the game’s closing minutes.
“They were both really similar kind of quarterbacks. Both of them were scrambling threats,” defensive end D.L. Wilhite said. “Both liked to get out of the pocket, so there wasn’t that much of an adjustment.”
Wilhite finished with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, and trenchmate Ra’Shede Hageman had a pair of sacks as well. The pass rush disrupted New Hampshire’s no-huddle offense and prevented Vailas from getting into a rhythm.
“We did pretty good against the run, pretty good on third down. We had four sacks,” linebacker Mike Rallis said. “The [defensive] line is putting pressure on them, and that really disrupts things for an offense.”
Donnell Kirkwood finished with 70 yards rushing and a touchdown and effectively established himself as the team’s top running back. Tailback James Gillum, who split carries with Kirkwood last week, had just one yard and a fumble on five carries.
As a unit, the Gophers rushed for 240 yards. Gray said after the game, “It really doesn’t matter if we’re running the ball or throwing the ball. Getting that rhythm helps out a lot.”
Minnesota played in front of an announced crowd of 47,022. The student section was practically full. Kill and athletics director Norwood Teague spent time Friday meeting fans and giving away student tickets in an effort to fill the student section. It worked.