MINNEAPOLIS — With the University of Minnesota football team in the midst of its bye week, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill didn’t hold his usual weekly press conference Tuesday. But Kill did address the media during the Big Ten coaches teleconference.
On the call, Kill was asked plenty about sophomore quarterback Max Shortell, who made his second start of the year last Saturday at Iowa, a 31-13 Gophers loss. In that game, Shortell threw three interceptions — including one that was returned 68 yards for a touchdown.
But Kill didn’t put much blame on the sophomore quarterback for those interceptions. The first one was a deep pass intended for A.J. Barker that was taken away by Iowa’s Tanner Miller along the sideline.
“I think that as you watch film, the first interception’s really not an interception. Our receiver caught the ball, A.J. Barker, and the defensive back made a great play and took it out of A.J.’s hands,” Kill said. “The next interception, we throw a fade route, which is a route that’s hard to get an interception, and our wide receiver doesn’t go and get the ball. And then the third interception we threw, the receiver ran the wrong route. He was anticipating doing one thing and it went the wrong way. . . .
“We’ve got to make some plays. I don’t think we tell him anything different because I think we’ve got to do a better job of route running and catching the football.”
It remains to be seen whether Shortell will get the start next Saturday when Minnesota hosts the currently undefeated Northwestern Wildcats. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, but the bye week will give him a chance to heal.
Until Gray is healthy, Shortell will be the Gophers’ top option. The bye week serves as a chance for him to gain more chemistry with his receiving corps.
“I think Max has been put in a tough situation,” Kill said. “I just think the big thing Max has to continue to do is just continue to learn offensively where the check-downs are and do the little things and just continue to execute and get familiar with the receivers.”
Gophers ‘shell shocked’ by Hawkeyes, especially on the ground: During Minnesota’s 4-0 start, the Gophers faced a number of pass-oriented offenses. But in their first game of the Big Ten season, the Gophers couldn’t slow down Iowa’s rushing attack — particularly running back Mark Weisman, who ran for 177 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
“When you play a team like Iowa, you’re not going to be able to stop the run with seven people,” Kill said. “You’ve got to be able to get a safety involved. We didn’t tackle. We’d been very good at tackling at the safety spot, and we didn’t tackle in the first half very well at all.”
Kill noted the difference in Weisman’s first-half and second-half numbers. Weisman piled up a good chunk of his yardage on back-to-back runs of 27 and 44 yards late in the first quarter.
“The second half, we went in and talked to our kids. We gave up 38 yards rushing in the second half,” Kill said. “. . . I think our football team got an education in the first half at Iowa. I think that we got shell shocked a little bit and settled down in the second half and were able to play a little bit better.”
Bye week comes at a good time: Aside from Gray, the Gophers have several players who have been banged up through five games of the 2012 season. That includes safety Brock Vereen, who Kill said was used only in nickel situations against Iowa. Minnesota should also get cornerback Martez Shabazz back on the field for the Northwestern game.
In the meantime, Kill said his team’s goals are to clean up the fundamentals and get healthy this week as he lightens the workload in practice.
“We’re not deep enough to think about a lot of personnel changes. Our big thing is fundamentally, in the Iowa game, they blocked better than we did, they tackled better than we did,” Kill said. “Offensively, we’ve just got to build some continuity up front. This is a good week to do it.”