Shortell stands tall for Gophers in victory
SEP 23, 2012 12:19a ET
MINNEAPOLIS — With each win, the confidence grows for the University of Minnesota football team. The Golden Gophers are now 4-0 after taking care of their latest opponent, the Syracuse Orange, by a 17-10 final at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota played its only home night game of the season, and the Gophers shined under the bright lights. Minnesota now enters Big Ten play against Iowa next weekend with an unbeaten record.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday's win.
1. Quarterback Max Shortell's second career start was much better than his first one.
Gophers senior quarterback MarQueis Gray was injured last Saturday, suffering a high ankle sprain that kept him out of this weekend's game against Syracuse. That meant Shortell, a true sophomore, got his first start of the year and the second of his young career. Shortell's only other start was one he'd like to forget, as he and the Gophers were routed, 58-0, on the road against Michigan.
Against Syracuse, though, Shortell was poised in the pocket. He had his fair share of incompletions — he finished 16-for-30 — but he was able to find open receivers when he needed to. His 231 yards surpassed his total from a week ago, although he didn't find the end zone Saturday. Minnesota's only two touchdowns came on the ground, compliments of running back Donnell Kirkwood.
Still, Shortell was able to manage the game and didn't make any costly mistakes. In fact, the Gophers didn't turn the ball over at all against the Orange.
Shortell spread the ball around to seven different receivers, hitting A.J. Barker four times. Sophomore wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts had a team-high 67 yards on three catches, including a 40-yarder that helped set up Kirkwood's first touchdown.
"They went after him, but he did a great job managing the game at the line of scrimmage," Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said of Shortell. "… We were able to run the ball when we needed to run it, and he got us in the right place. For a young quarterback, we made him do a lot. He handled it."
2. When TCF Bank Stadium is buzzing, it makes a difference.
The school was anticipating a sellout of Saturday night's game, and Gophers fans certainly packed TCF Bank Stadium. It indeed was announced as a sellout: 50,805 fans in attendance, the first sellout of the 2012 season. Minnesota gave away a number of tickets to students throughout the week, with Kill participating in giveaways on campus.
During the game, Minnesota's fans were even more boisterous. The crowd was ignited early, as the Gophers defense intercepted the first Syracuse pass of the game. From there, the maroon and gold faithful caused problems for the Orange on offense as at least a few false start penalties appeared to be due to crowd noise.
"It was great. Sometimes I couldn't even hear (quarterback Max Shortell), and I was on the offensive side of the ball," said running back Donnell Kirkwood. "It was great for everybody to show up, to support us. We need them every game at home. With a crowd like that, I don't think anybody came come in here and just get an easy win."
Added Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone: "We got shook up at times with the noise. Credit to Minnesota, they are undefeated."
After the game, the Minnesota student section chanted "Jerry! Jerry!" and "Undefeated! Undefeated!" as the Gophers players walked toward the crowd before leaving for the locker room.
"I give all of the love in the world to all the fans who came out," said safety Brock Vereen. "I hope they keep coming out, and I hope that they all realize that they can affect the game. We need them out there."
3. Minnesota has surpassed its win total from each of the past two seasons.
The Gophers finished 3-9 in 2010, leading to the firing of head coach Tim Brewster. In stepped Kill, whose team finished 3-9 in his first year at the helm.
After a 3-0 start to the 2012 season, the Gophers were already halfway to becoming bowl eligible. Now, they enter Big Ten play with an unblemished 4-0 record, needing just two wins in eight conference games to become bowl eligible.
It's the first time since 2008 that Minnesota has opened the season with a 4-0 record. After struggling the past several years since then, seeing a Gophers team with an unblemished record at this juncture in the season may seem odd. But Minnesota believes in itself — and its confidence is growing with each win.
"This is why you come to the Big Ten, to play big time football," Vereen said. "Through these last few seasons, let's be honest, we haven't been there. But this is our year, and we feel that way. If Coach Kill says to do something, we're going to do it, and this is the result."
4. Mental mistakes are still a problem for the Gophers.
Minnesota seems to be turning a corner as a program. But in order to truly turn the corner, the Gophers can't continue to make mental mistakes and costly penalties at the rate that they have.
Saturday's game included several ill-advised penalties that either stalled Gophers drives or helped prolong Syracuse drives. Just before halftime, Minnesota appeared to have its second touchdown of the game on a 34-yard pass from Shortell to Devin Crawford-Tufts. But a holding penalty negated the score, and Minnesota failed to put points on the board before halftime.
On one lengthy Orange possession, Minnesota was whistled for a roughing the passer penalty on a 3rd-and-13 for Syracuse. Quarterback Ryan Nassib's pass was incomplete on the play, but he was hit late, giving the Orange a first down.
Later in that drive, Gophers defensive back Michael Carter was flagged for pass interference on consecutive plays. The first one gave Syracuse the ball on the 2-yard line.
Unlike last year, though, the Gophers have been able to respond when they hurt themselves. Those pass interference penalties didn't end up ultimately hurting Minnesota, however, as Aaron Hill picked off Nassib inside the 5-yard line to stop the drive.
"I think we've sold our kids on going to the next play," Kill said. "You can't control the penalties. If something happens, you can't talk about it. You have to go to the next play. I think our kids are starting to develop, 'Hey, go to the next play. You can't worry about what happened on the last one.'"
5. Minnesota can still run the football without Gray.
Last season, Gray was the Gophers' leading rusher with 966 yards on 199 carries. Before going down with a high ankle sprain last Saturday, he was still a vital part of Minnesota's rushing attack — his 234 rushing yards were just 28 yards fewer than Kirkwood's 262.
But with Gray on the sidelines, the Gophers still piled up 106 yards on the ground, including two rushing touchdowns. Kirkwood carried the brunt of the load, rushing 28 times for 99 yards. K.J. Maye also had six carries for 17 yards.
"I think you've got to have a balanced attack. I've said that all along," Kill said. "I thought we were able to come downhill more. They blitzed us a lot, and our offensive line did some good things."
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