MINNEAPOLIS — The Golden Gophers football team is 4-0 after non-conference play, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota is without issues.
Particularly, injury issues. Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday in his weekly press conference that senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who missed last week’s game with a high ankle sprain, likely won’t play this Saturday when Minnesota opens up Big Ten play at Iowa. That means sophomore Max Shortell will get his second consecutive start, and the third of his young college career.
“MarQueis, we met with the training staff today. He’s working on getting better, but I don’t anticipate him playing,” Kill said.
Gray wasn’t the only player whose health Kill was concerned about. Sophomore left guard Tommy Olson suffered an ankle injury in Saturday’s win over Syracuse and is a “big question mark” for the Iowa game, Kill said. Olson was wearing a boot on his foot Tuesday. Cornerback Martez Shabazz missed Saturday’s game with a dislocated toe, and it sounds like he won’t play until after the Gophers’ bye week next weekend.
Additionally, linebacker Lamonte Edwards, who missed a game with a concussion, has been cleared to practice, as has offensive lineman Joe Bjorklund. Minnesota is still without junior center Zach Mottla, who is out with a high ankle sprain.
“I’m a little nervous right now. We’re playing hard, but we’re beat up,” Kill said. “We’re sitting there with a young quarterback, and we move Zac Epping to center, and now Tommy Olson’s injured. There’s continuity involved in all of that. That makes me a little bit nervous as we go into Big Ten play.”
Winning the turnover battle: Through four games, the Gophers are a plus-five in turnover margin, which is tied for first among all Big Ten teams. Last season, Minnesota finished dead last in the conference with a margin of minus-eight.
The Gophers have lost three fumbles but have also recovered three fumbles in four games. The difference lies in the interceptions — Minnesota’s quarterbacks have thrown just two picks so far, while the Gophers’ defense has intercepted opposing quarterbacks a total of seven times in four games. A year ago, Minnesota had just four interceptions all season.
“I always say that good players make better coaches,” Kill said. “I think we have some players that are playing aggressively and making some plays.”
Winning the turnover battle has been vital during the Gophers’ 4-0 start. Minnesota forced four turnovers — two interceptions, two fumbles — last Saturday against Syracuse and did not give the ball away at all on offense.
“If you take a study of people that won the Super Bowl, it’s the teams that turned the ball over less in the NFL,” Kill said. “You look at college football, and the teams that win most of the time have the plus column in the turnovers. …
“I don’t think there’s any question that turnovers are a big key. We got four turnovers on Saturday and we had zero with a young quarterback. You do that, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Health is key for Kirkwood: Gophers redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood has carried the load for Minnesota’s rushing game so far, racking up 361 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Most importantly, though, is the fact that Kirkwood has been able to stay on the field in 2012. Last year, he missed time with a hamstring injury. He was also granted a medical redshirt year in 2010 after suffering a leg injury; he appeared in just four games that season.
“The offseason’s improved a lot of people’s confidence. He feels like he’s stronger, he’s healthier,” Kill said of Kirkwood. “He’s worked hard. I think (strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein) will tell you he’s put in all kinds of extra time of stretching and doing all the little things it takes to stay healthy. I give him all the credit. I think his mindset’s good, and he’s playing with some confidence.”
Kirkwood rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday against Syracuse. One week earlier, he had his first 100-yard rushing game of his career as he ran for 110 yards against Western Michigan.
“He had a really, really good football game on Saturday overall as a running back,” Kill said. “But I just think he’s gained some confidence in himself and he’s stayed healthy.”
Dancing around the topic du jour: One day after the NFL’s game on Monday night against Green Bay and Seattle ended on a controversial call by the replacement officials, the game’s final play was still the talk of the sports world. Kill wasn’t immune.
The Gophers’ second-year coach was asked if he was glad than the Big Ten does not have to use replacement officials. Just like Packers head coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, Kill wouldn’t bite at the question Tuesday.
“I didn’t get to see it, but I heard because (wide receivers coach Pat) Poore, Mike McCarthy used to live in his basement when he was coaching at Fort Hays State in Kansas, so there’s a relationship,” Kill said. “I was told by our staff this morning that (McCarthy) said at the very beginning that he would have no comment on the officials. I really can’t have any comment. That’s what I’m told in the Big Ten. I guess I’ll have the same answer he does.”