QBs will be key in Gophers-Wildcats clash

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is finally back on the field this Saturday following a bye week. The Gophers are antsy to return after mulling over their loss to Iowa late last month. It was the first loss of the year for Minnesota and dropped the previously perfect Gophers to 4-1. Now Minnesota hosts 5-1 Northwestern for homecoming this Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Here are five things to watch for in the Gophers’ second Big Ten game of 2012.

1. How much, if at all, will quarterback MarQueis Gray play?

Gray suffered a high ankle sprain in the Gophers’ game against Western Michigan and hasn’t played in the team’s last two games. Sophomore quarterback Max Shortell has started in Gray’s place, but Minnesota had a bye week last weekend, giving Gray’s ankle time to heal.

Gray was not listed on the injury report released by the Gophers on Thursday, although it’s still unlikely that he will start Saturday against Northwestern. Shortell is expected to get the majority of snaps under center, but Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said there “is a chance” Gray plays. If he does, it might not be more than 15-20 plays. Still, Minnesota will be cautious with Gray.

“If he’s in a situation where he feels comfortable and says, ‘Hey coach, I’m ready to play, I feel good about it,’ and he’s not limping around,” Kill said. “… He’s a smart kid. He’s not going to say he’s ready if he’s not ready. He doesn’t want to hurt his team.”

2. Can the Gophers’ running game bounce back?

Running back Donnell Kirkwood had been solid in the Gophers’ first four games, running for over 200 combined yards against Western Michigan and Syracuse. But Kirkwood was stymied against Iowa, as he picked up just 33 yards on 12 carries. Shortell was Minnesota’s leading rusher, gaining 46 yards on 16 rushes.

Kirkwood and the Gophers will be up against a tough rushing defense, as Northwestern has allowed just 101.8 yards per game on the ground this year, second-fewest in the Big Ten behind Michigan State.

“We didn’t play well as a unit. We didn’t run the ball very well,” Kill said. “If you can’t run the ball, you’re not going to win. You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”

3. How will Minnesota stop Venric Mark?

Northwestern has one of the top offenses in the Big Ten so far this season, and much of that is thanks to Venric Mark. The junior running back is fourth in the conference in rushing with an average of 101.7 yards per game. He’s also tied for the most touchdowns among Big Ten players with nine in six games.

Two of Mark’s touchdowns have come in the return game, as he doubles as the Wildcats’ punt returner. The Gophers have had their struggles in the punting game, averaging just 35.4 net yards per punt. Having to kick to Mark will make things even tougher.

“Obviously he does a great job when he decides to take some returns,” Gophers punter Christian Eldred said of Mark. “So obviously as far as I’m concerned, that just means I need to put some good hangtime on the ball and just don’t give him a chance to look to return it. I think we’ve got some schemes lined up for this week that will allow us to do that.”

4. Was the Iowa loss a speed bump, or did it show what kind of team Minnesota really is?

The Gophers entered the Big Ten schedule with a perfect 4-0 record and had started to generate buzz on campus. But Minnesota’s non-conference record was rather soft, and a few of its wins were not pretty.

Then along came the Big Ten season, and the Gophers were routed 31-13 in their first conference game. Minnesota turned the ball over four times and couldn’t stop Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman in the first half. The Gophers trailed 24-0 at halftime and never recovered from the early deficit as they suffered their first loss of 2012.

But was that game a hiccup? Is Minnesota better than it showed in Iowa City? Saturday should be another good test as the Gophers face a 5-1 Wildcats squad that has put up plenty of points thus far.

In the meantime, Kill isn’t wasting his time worrying about whether people are thinking that these are the “same old Gophers” after losing to Iowa.

“I don’t ever really worry about what other people say,” Kill said. “… I don’t take it personally. It’s part of the deal. If you do your job, you work hard, good things come to you. They’ve always come to me because of that, so I don’t worry about that. “

5. Will Northwestern utilize its two quarterbacks?

Through six games, the Wildcats have used two quarterbacks, as Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian have combined for 188 pass attempts. As of late, Colter has been used at other positions, as he has 12 catches for 148 yards. He’s thrown just 12 total passes in Northwestern’s last three games.

Still, Colter is a threat to run and can give the Wildcats offense a change of pace if he does line up under center. Siemian, meanwhile, has done the bulk of the passing, as he’s attempted 68 total passes the last two weeks. On the season, though, Siemian has just two touchdown passes and has been intercepted once.

Kill said few schools utilize the two-quarterback system quite like Northwestern. It will be interesting to see how Minnesota plans to contain both on Saturday.

“You have to know where everybody is at all times,” said Gophers safety Brock Vereen. “When they have great athletes out there, you just have to know where everybody is if you want to have the right game plan, so we have to make sure we get that handled.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.