Cue talks of a quarterback controversy.
Just when it looked like quarterback MarQueis Gray had made the jump to a reliable starter for the Gophers, backup quarterback Max Shortell stole the show Saturday as Minnesota defeated Western Michigan 28-23 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Replacing an injured Gray, Shortell passed for 188 yards and three touchdowns. He led two pivotal scoring drives in the final minutes of the first half to give the Gophers a comfortable lead that they held the rest of the way.
Gray limped off the field with a high-ankle sprain late in the second quarter. No timetable has been given on his return, but head coach Jerry Kill ruled out the possibility of a severe injury Sunday.
Kill said a high-ankle sprain can take anywhere from two to four weeks to fully heal, but he referenced how Gray returned earlier than expected from a turf toe injury last season.
With Gray sidelined and the Gophers trailing 10-7 late in the second quarter, a sense of doubt resonated in TCF Bank Stadium.
Shortell, unfazed, stepped in and put that doubt to rest.
“I’ve gotten in a few times this year, and it’s clear the coaches giving me a chance last year has really helped me … extend what I can do on the field,” Shortell said.
The redheaded sophomore dazzled on his first play from scrimmage, energizing the announced crowd of 44,921 with a 32-yard dart down the right sideline to an uncovered Derrick Engel. Four plays later, he hooked up with junior wideout A.J. Barker for a nine-yard touchdown.
Shortell hit Barker again on the next possession with a 53-yard strike that put the Gophers ahead 21-10.
“He went in [after Gray’s injury], and I don’t think he had time to think, so he just let it rip,” Kill said. “There’s no question it was a team win, but he certainly stepped up, or we would’ve been in trouble.”
Gray was back on the sidelines for the start of the second half, but he was on crutches with his left leg heavily wrapped.
The Broncos scored on their first drive of the second half, but the Gophers responded on the ensuing drive with Shortell’s third touchdown pass of the game.
After a back-and-forth start to the fourth quarter, Minnesota let the Broncos back into the game with a questionable coaching call. With less than six minutes left and an 11-point lead, the Gophers chose to go for it on fourth-and-15 from WMU’s 34-yard line.
Receiver Marcus Jones had a one-on-one matchup and beat his man down the seam, but Shortell overthrew him, and Minnesota turned the ball over on downs.
Kill defended his decision to go for it after the game.
“We had the matchup. If we throw and catch it, people say that’s a good thing,” Kill said. “If you don’t … it’s bad coaching. We didn’t execute it, so I’d call it bad coaching — but I’d do it again.”
WMU drove 66 yards in 92 seconds, scored a touchdown and forced Minnesota to punt on the next possession. Trailing by five, the Broncos had a chance to win the game on their last drive.
But Minnesota’s defense held — aided by a WMU penalty that negated a 14-yard gain on first down — and Shortell took a knee to wind out the clock.
Gophers defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman said the defense was confident it would get the stop the team needed.
“[They] obviously had a quarterback that was scared to throw the ball,” Hageman said of WMU quarterback Alex Carder. “We were putting pressure on him the whole game. We just had to get a stop.”
Kill credited his team and its fans for the stop.
“Our kids held up to the challenge, but … the crowd had a lot to do with that,” Kill said. “[WMU] got a 5-yard penalty, and the crowd was tremendous on third down.”
Carder was 24 of 44 for 209 yards, a touchdown and an interception. WMU running back Dareyon Chance added 144 yards on 29 carries. But the Broncos’ offense as a whole failed to live up to the hype generated by its 52-point performance in Week Two.
The Gophers’ defense had a lot to do with that. Defensive back Michael Carter deflected two passes and intercepted a ball in the first quarter to help set the tone.
Kill said Sunday the Gophers will move forward with Shortell as the starting quarterback until more is known about Gray’s condition. True freshman Philip Nelson will serve as the backup if Gray is unable to play against Syracuse.
Shortell dodged questions on whether he had done enough to earn the starting quarterback role even when Gray returns. His coach did, too.
“That’s one of those things where [Shortell] was ready, and his opportunity came,” Kill said. “We certainly hope that MarQueis will heal quickly, but at this point in time, we’ve got to get the guys ready that will be able to play.”