Gophers’ Gray injured, but Shortell saves day

MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t uncharted territory for Max Shortell. The Gophers sophomore quarterback had been thrown into the fire before when starter MarQueis Gray was injured.

It happened in Shortell’s first game of his true freshman season last year. Gray left the game with cramps, and Shortell nearly led Minnesota to a comeback victory over Southern Cal on the road. At the time, there was some clamoring for Shortell to start over Gray, inciting a bit of a quarterback controversy in Dinkytown.

So when Gray went down with a high ankle sprain in the second quarter of Saturday’s 28-23 win over Western Michigan, it was a familiar feeling for Shortell as he stepped under center at TCF Bank Stadium. It was unexpected, but Shortell was prepared.

“The coaches giving me a chance last year has really helped me to extend what I can do on the field and help me be a better player,” Shortell said. “… We’ve all played in so many games that it’s almost second nature to go in there and do what you need to do. It’s a game. You go out there and try to have fun. Whatever happens, happens.”

After being attended to by team trainers, Gray was helped off the sideline by two of his linemen and later carted from the sideline to the locker room. Shortell’s first pass of the game went for 32 yards deep downfield to wide receiver Derrick Engel. Later in that drive, Shortell hit Isaac Fruechte for a 24-yard completion, which put Minnesota on the Western Michigan 11-yard line.

Just as the cart carrying Gray was about to exit into the tunnel, Shortell found wide receiver A.J. Barker for a 9-yard touchdown. Shortell finished that drive 3-for-3 for 65 yards and a touchdown and helped ignite the struggling Gophers offense.

In fact, Shortell led the Gophers to a pair of scoring drives in his first two series after Gray went down. The second ended in a 53-yard touchdown to Barker, which put Minnesota ahead, 21-10 just before halftime.

“I think it’s outstanding that Max was ready for his opportunity,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “You don’t see that very often. He did a great job coming in and stepping in.”

Gray did not return to the game, instead watching the second half from the sideline in a walking boot while using crutches to move around. Kill said Gray will have an MRI on his ankle, and his status for next week remains uncertain.

Shortell finished the game 10-for-17 for 188 yards and three touchdowns. He also had an interception, though, as he was picked off on a deep throw downfield to Barker. Western Michigan’s Lewis Toler, playing in single coverage, jumped in front of Barker and made the athletic interception.

After finding Barker for a pair of touchdowns, Shortell hit tight end Drew Goodger for a 9-yard score that made it a 28-17 Gophers lead midway through the third quarter. Both Shortell and Goodger came to Minnesota from Shawnee Mission, Kan., although they attended different high schools. Shortell was a standout at Bishop Miege High School while Goodger, also a sophomore, played at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School.

On Saturday, the former high school rivals connected as college teammates. For Goodger, it was his first collegiate touchdown.

“I always played against him in baseball when I was younger,” Shortell said of Goodger. “We’d always been really good buddies ever since then. Ever since I knew he committed to Minnesota, we had been in contact. We’re real good buddies. It was nice to hook up for a touchdown finally.”

Neither Kill nor Shortell would take the bait when asked after the game about any potential quarterback controversy. In fact, Shortell wouldn’t even answer the question, not wanting to draw attention from his team’s 3-0 start.

“We won the game. That’s all I’m going to say,” Kill said. “We’ve got a kid hurt, which is a big concern.”

It’s unlikely anything will be decided in the next few days regarding Gray’s status for Saturday’s game against Syracuse. But regardless of which quarterback is under center next weekend, Gray or Shortell, the Gophers remain confident that either player can lead the offense.

“When MarQueis comes back, that’ll be great,” junior running back Donnell Kirkwood said. “But Max is playing great also. You don’t want to lose your starting quarterback to an injury, so that was a tough pill to swallow. But we weren’t like, ‘Dang, ‘Queis is out. There’s no hope.’ Nah. We know what Max can do.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.