MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota’s bye week, following its first loss of the season, gave several dinged-up Gophers the opportunity to get healthy as Minnesota prepares to host Northwestern this Saturday.
Among those injured Gophers making progress is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who suffered a high ankle sprain in Minnesota’s third game of the season against Western Michigan. Gray has yet to return to action, as sophomore Max Shortell has led the Gophers offense in each of the last two games.
Tuesday, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said Gray was making progress and practiced with the team Sunday. But Gray did not practice at all the rest of the bye week, and his status for Saturday’s game against the Wildcats remains in question.
“I pushed him a little bit (Sunday), and I thought he responded okay. I think we’ll know a little more today,” Kill said Tuesday. “He took some reps. We even did a little bit with team reps, but still has a little bit of a limp. If we were playing tomorrow, he wouldn’t be ready to play, but we’ll see how things progress. I would say that we’re cautiously optimistic that he can be available in some situations possibly.”
Kill mentioned the possibility of using both Gray and Shortell on Saturday, although it’s likely Gray’s role would be limited. The next few days of practice will be important in seeing how much better Gray’s ankle gets. Still, he has some catching up to do after missing a few weeks of practice.
“He’s running around a little bit. He’s still running a little bit with a limp. We’ll practice today and see,” Kill said. “You can’t put a plan together unless you know the plan will be able to perform on Saturday. … I wish I had a crystal ball. I’d sleep a lot better. But I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Gophers prepare for two quarterbacks: While there’s a chance Minnesota could use both Shortell and Gray on Saturday, the Gophers’ defense already knows it will see two quarterbacks for Northwestern.
Through six games, the Wildcats have used junior Kain Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian. Colter hasn’t been used much at quarterback the past few games — he didn’t attempt a pass in Saturday’s loss to Penn State and had just three attempts against Indiana the week before. But Colter has still found a way to make an impact, including four rushing touchdowns against the Hoosiers and another against the Nittany Lions, along with three catches.
Having to prepare for two possible quarterbacks will keep the Gophers’ defense busy this week in practice.
“From an offensive standpoint, they’re going to spread out the defense and they’re going to play two quarterbacks, and they’re going to move one all around to make you have a bad mismatch,” Kill said. “They’re going to play fast. They had 21 points a year ago before we even blinked. They’re going to go.”
Punting game could be a factor Saturday: While the Gophers struggled as a team against Iowa, punter Christian Eldred had his best game of the season. The Australian import averaged a season-high 44.5 yards per kick and had two punts downed inside the 20-year line.
On Saturday, Eldred and the Gophers will face one of top punt return teams in the Big Ten. In fact, Northwestern averages 27.4 yards per punt return, easily the most among conference teams. Nebraska is second with a 15.5-yard average per return.
Leading the way for the Wildcats’ punt return team is junior running back Venric Mark, who has already returned two punts for touchdowns this season.
“Probably the biggest thing is they find a way to get turnovers and make big plays,” Kill said of the Wildcats. “From the punt return game, I worry about their punt returner. He’s taken it to the house two or three times this year already.”
The Gophers have yet to give up a kick or punt return for a touchdown. The longest punt return allowed by Minnesota this year came against Iowa — a 27-yard return. In two of the Gophers’ five games, the punting unit did not allow a return on six total kicks.
That will be Eldred’s goal Saturday when he punts to Mark: don’t give him a chance for a big return.
“Obviously he does a great job when he decides to take some returns,” 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.”