MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team lost its starting quarterback to an injury, but it won the game Saturday against Western Michigan, beating the visiting Broncos by a 28-23 final at TCF Bank Stadium. Quarterback MarQueis Gray left the game with a high ankle sprain and did not return, but sophomore Max Shortell stepped in admirably. Meanwhile, the Gophers defense did enough to hang on late and help Minnesota improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2008. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game.
1. A.J. Barker is emerging as the Gophers’ top receiver. Prior to this season, junior wide receiver A.J. Barker had just one total catch in his career at Minnesota. As a walk-on, Barker has battled injuries and was buried on the Gophers’ depth chart. But he had a bit of a breakout game in the season opener against UNLV, racking up 101 receiving yards.
Saturday against Western Michigan was a game Barker won’t soon forget. The former De La Salle High School standout caught five passes for a team-high 101 yards and grabbed three touchdowns to help lead Minnesota’s aerial attack. His final touchdown of the day came on a 53-yard completion from backup quarterback Max Shortell, a play on which Barker did most of the work after the catch.
Barker also caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter for Minnesota’s first points. He hauled in his first touchdown last Saturday against UNLV and now leads all Gophers players with four touchdowns, one ahead of tight end John Rabe.
“I’m probably one of the crazy people out there that did believe I could do that,” Barker said after the game. “It’s a credit to the coaching staff putting me in the position to make the play. … I just took advantage of the opportunities given to me.”
2. Minnesota’s pass defense passed its toughest test. The Gophers knew that Western Michigan was going to throw the ball early and often on Saturday. That was indeed the case. Broncos quarterback Alex Carder, who threw five touchdowns last Saturday against Eastern Illinois, attempted 44 passes against Minnesota.
But most of Carder’s throws were short passes, as he rarely went deep downfield. When he did, Carder tended to miss his targets on long passes; his longest completion went for just 19 yards. He finished the game just 24-of-44 for 209 yards and one touchdown. It was the fewest yards Carder passed for in three games this season; he had 239 yards in Week 1 against Illinois and 364 yards last weekend.
Carder was also intercepted by Gophers cornerback Michael Carter, whose interception gave Minnesota the ball inside the Western Michigan 20-yard line. Three plays later, Minnesota had its first touchdown of the game.
“I read the down and distance, it was maybe 3rd-and-7,” Carter said of the interception. “… Instead of backpedaling, I just was patient and read the quarterback’s three-step (drop) and just jumped the route.”
Minnesota also got to Carder twice, as defensive linemen Michael Amaefula and D.L. Wilhite each recorded a sack. Wilhite now has 3 ½ sacks on the year, which put him ahead of Ra’Shede Hageman’s three sacks for the team lead.
“D.L. had a great sack,” Hageman said. “It’s like the whole D-line gets a sack. We’re all happy for him. I might have to tune up and try to (one-up) him next week.”
3. Being 3-0 is special, but the Gophers are focused. The Gophers tried to downplay their 2-0 start after knocking off New Hampshire last Saturday. But after topping Western Michigan, easily their toughest opponent thus far, the Gophers are again gaining confidence as they improved to 3-0.
It’s the first time since 2008 that Minnesota has started a year 3-0. That year’s team went on to finish 7-6 and earned a berth in the Insight Bowl.
As the Gophers continue to push toward their goal of playing in a bowl game, they can’t look too far ahead. That means worrying about Syracuse, who comes to town next weekend for Minnesota’s final non-conference game of the season.
“We’ve had a great start, but we’re definitely not satisfied,” Shortell said. “We’re not satisfied just with three wins. We’re not satisfied at all, so we’re going to come out each week ready to play. Right now, our focus is on Syracuse. This game is over, so we’re going to do all we can.
“Every game is important. Every game is a must-win. This is just another must-win game for us.”
4. Donnell Kirkwood can certainly be a 100-yard rusher. In each of Minnesota’s three games this season, Kirkwood’s contributions on offense have grown. On Saturday, the redshirt sophomore broke through with his first 100-yard game of his career. He finished with 110 yards on 23 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
Kirkwood’s longest run of the day came at a crucial time late in the game as Minnesota was trying to run the clock down. Facing a 2nd-and-12 on their own 22-yard line, the Gophers ran the ball with Kirkwood, who scampered 26 yards to move the chains and, most important, keep the clock moving.
While Kirkwood didn’t find the end zone, he broke off a number of 10-plus yard runs and helped Minnesota’s offense chew up the clock as the Gophers held onto a second-half lead.
“He had to step up. We needed somebody to step up in the run game,” Kill said of Kirkwood. “He did a great job. We needed some yardage, critical yardage. … He got us out of tough field position, and the offensive line stepped up and he got good, hard yards.”
5. The Gophers don’t want to talk about a quarterback controversy. It was inevitable that the questions would come up. After starting quarterback MarQueis Gray left the game with a high ankle sprain and Max Shortell stepped in, many were likely left wondering who Minnesota should start at quarterback next week. Shortell impressed in relief, throwing three touchdowns and leading a slumping Gophers offense.
But after the game, neither Shortell nor Kill was much too fond of the though of a quarterback controversy.
“I don’t really want to answer that one,” Shortell said.
Kill didn’t really want to, either, but he was still asked the question.
“We won the game. That’s all I’m going to say,” Kill said. “We’ve got a kid hurt, which is the big concern. He’s a tremendous athlete, tremendous player. Max came in and did his job and we won. That’s my answer.”