MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team will play its only night home game of the season when it faces Syracuse at 7 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers enter the game with a 3-0 record following a win last weekend against Western Michigan. The Orange, meanwhile, come to Dinkytown on the heels of their first win of the year, a 28-17 victory over Stony Brook. Prior to that, Syracuse lost a 42-41 shootout against Northwestern and fell 42-29 to then-No. 2 USC. Five things to watch as Minnesota attempts to start 4-0 for the first time in four years:
1. Will sophomore quarterback Max Shortell’s second career start go better than his first?
Shortell will start Saturday in place of the injured MarQueis Gray, who suffered a high ankle sprain in last weekend’s win against Western Michigan. Shortell started one game last season as a true freshman when Gray was out, but the Gophers were routed, 58-0, on the road by Michigan. Shortell finished that game 11-for-22 for 104 yards and was sacked three times.
Leading up to Saturday’s game against Syracuse, Shortell’s teammates expressed confidence in the sophomore quarterback’s ability to lead them. He showed last weekend that he can be an effective quarterback — he went 10-for-17 for 188 yards and three scores in relief of Gray — and will look to carry those results over to Saturday night.
“Max has been through some of those trials and errors as a freshman last year, and his preparation, he came in with the mindset, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to be a starter,’ and he’s kept that mindset,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “Max stepped in, did a pretty good job, and now we expect him to go in and play well and be ready to go against Syracuse.”
2. What is Minnesota’s backup plan if Shortell gets banged up?
Kill said Tuesday he told Gray that his goal should be to prepare to be the backup quarterback on Saturday. Throughout the week, Gray has made progress with his sprained ankle. He was able to jog a bit late in the week and was not wearing a walking boot after Thursday’s practice. Officially, Gray is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game, but it seems unlikely he’ll get on the field.
So that raises the question: What happens if Shortell is injured? Or if his helmet comes off? (A new rule in college football states that a player must come off the field for one play if his helmet comes off during the game.) True freshman quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are both capable of stepping in, especially for just a few plays, but the Gophers don’t want to do that. Playing a true freshman for even one snap eliminates the chance of redshirting that player.
“… Max Shortell is our guy that we’re playing, and Philip has to be the backup, and Mitch Leidner has got to be ready to play,” Kill said earlier this week. “There’s no avoiding that. If MarQueis is able to get himself healthy enough to be available, that even benefits us more. You’re dealt the cards and you play them.”
3. The Gophers slowed down Western Michigan’s passing attack. Can they do the same against Syracuse?
Through three games this season, Minnesota’s passing defense has been stellar. The Gophers were tested last Saturday by a Western Michigan team that threw the ball plenty in its first two games. Against Minnesota, though, the Broncos managed just 209 yards on 24-of-44 passing. As a defense, the Gophers have allowed just 162.7 passing yards per game.
But Minnesota has yet to face a passing game like Syracuse’s. The Orange have thrown for an average of 379.7 yards per game, third-most in all of college football. Quarterback Ryan Nassib has already surpassed 1,100 passing yards with a 66 percent completion rate along with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. In Syracuse’s season opener against Northwestern, Nassib attempted 66 passes, completing 45 of for 482 yards and four touchdowns.
Saturday will be another test for Minnesota’s secondary — and a chance for the Gophers defense to show it’s for real.
“They’re very explosive,” Kill said of Syracuse. “They’ve got a receiving corps (with an) athletic skill set. They’re different than a lot of people we’ll play even the rest of the year. They’ve got very good skill sets and are very gifted at wide receiver and quarterback, and they can go vertical with the football.”
4. Will a receiver step up to help out junior wideout A.J. Barker?
Barker is having a breakout season after being a non-factor as a freshman and sophomore. He had a career day last weekend, scoring three touchdowns while racking up 101 yards on five catches. Barker now has 10 catches for 231 yards and four touchdowns — all team highs — through three games.
But the Gophers need another receiver or tight end to step up. Each week, it’s been someone different. Last Saturday, tight end Drew Goodger caught his first pass of the season and scored his first career touchdown. Derrick Engel also caught a pair of passes, including a 32-yarder on Shortell’s first play of the game.
Freshman receiver Andre McDonald was hospitalized Thursday with what was reportedly a heart issue, and his status for Saturday’s game remains uncertain. The Gophers are also without freshman receiver Jamel Harbison, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. That means the young receiving corps of Barker, Engel, sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts and junior college transfer Isaac Fruechte will all have to step up collectively.
“I think we’ve caught the ball well, and we’ve run good routes,” Kill said. “We’ve got to get off press coverage better, but we’re young, so they’re all learning. Most of them haven’t played. They learn every week, and it’s a teaching session every week, but hopefully we’ll continue to improve.”
5. Is 4-0 a real possibility?
With a victory Saturday, the Gophers would surpass their win total from both 2010 and 2011, as they finished each of the last two seasons with matching 3-9 records. A 4-0 start to the season would mark the first time since 2008 that Minnesota has opened the year with four straight wins. That ’08 Gophers team went on to finish 7-6 with a berth in the Insight Bowl.
Minnesota has handled its moderate amount of prosperity well thus far. The Gophers are halfway to being bowl eligible, and they’re still in non-conference play. A 4-0 start would mean Minnesota needs just two wins in Big Ten play to earn a bowl trip. That was the team’s goal heading into the season. Beating Syracuse would get the Gophers one step closer to that goal.
“I think we’ve been pretty consistent as coaches here; whether you win or lose, we’re going to treat you the same,” Kill said. “We get excited about a win and we enjoy it, and you enjoy the moments, but then when you come back to work you go to work.”