The Gophers didn't win Saturday in East Lansing, but boy it felt a lot better than Minnesota's previous three Big Ten losses. The U hung tough with an excellent (and still B1G championship contender) Sparty squad and were THIS close to pulling the upset. I'm not going to get too excited about a loss (remember the last time we felt that way about a loss? USC? Remember how things went after that? Just sayin'), but there was a lot of good that came out of that game. The defense has played inspired and improved ball for two weeks, he O-line has looked much better (especially pass blocking), and we finally have a running back averaging more than 4 yards a carry for the season (hello Duane Bennett)!
But two guys that really stood out in Maroon and Gold in the loss were QB MarQueis Gray and WR Da'Jon McKnight. Gray has made some enormous strides as a quarterback the past two weeks has he's finally starting to look like a, you know, real, honest to goodness Big Ten QB. Far from perfect sure, but he's been much, much better in the win over Iowa (especially the fourth quarter) and last Saturday. In his first seven games he was an incredible runner who struggled to throw complete passes. Yes his O-line gave him no help and very little chance, his receivers dropped passes, and the defense knew the Gophers couldn't run the ball with anyone but him.
There was a lot working against him, but the inexperienced signal-caller looked it as he sailed passes or bounced them in the turf, and it seemed a lot of times wasn't putting the ball where he should have. For me, that's why the Gophers kept sending Gray out to play QB: because despite how poor his passing numbers had been, he was the only running threat they had, and it at least gave them a chance to move the ball. They had no other choice. We hoped the bye week would bring improvement for everybody, and then Nebraska walloped the Gophers 41-14. In the second half of that game, though, Minnesota put together two scoring drives, and a third long drive that ended on downs, which was at least progress from what we'd been seeing the previous three weeks against Big Ten opponents.
Then Iowa happened...
The offense wasn't great all day, but they were functional, and competitive, and when the fourth quarter rolled around Q led not one but TWO scoring drives, including the game-winner on a three yard keeper. In the win he was 11-17 for 193 yards and a TD pass (with no picks) and ran for 62 more and the Floyd-stealing touchdown. If we get that kind of performance from him every week, I'm pretty satisfied with that. Not spectacular, but efficient, which is what Jerry Kill and OC Matt Limegrover are asking for.
Against Michigan State and their excellent defense I was just hoping they'd look competitive. MSU's D was tops in the conference in total defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense, which I figured would mean more running and fewer passes. But that's not what happened. Gray threw the ball 32 times, completing 19 for 295 yards and 3 TD's. Yes he threw 2 picks, and the last one that ended the game was brutal, but as the game developed I felt like Minnesota should keep throwing because it kept working. And it did. Gray kept finding open receivers, and despite far too many third and longs, he and his line and his receivers kept finding ways to convert (7-15, a pretty substantial upgrade in that department from the woeful 3rd down percentage they had previously).
Again, Q is far from perfect or a finished product, but after his last two games, he's definitely the QB for this team for the rest of the season and next. Small sample size alert!- but look at his numbers from the past two games:
30-49 (61.2%) 488 yards 4TD & 2INT for a QB rating of 167.4.
When you factor in the rushing yards and running threat, that's an all-conference QB right there. Yes, small sample size, but it's come against a VERY good MSU defense, and a rapidly improving Iowa defense, not MAC or WAC teams. Of course another big test is coming Saturday with Bucky in town, but I'm hoping the improvement we've seen is real and he gives the Badgers all they can handle (and they'll need to in order to keep pace with the Sconnie offense).
We also can't forget McKnight, who's criminally underrated because of how few looks he's gotten this year, but he just flat owned Michigan State. 9 catches for 173 and 3 scores, and if you watched the game he was even better than his numbers. Key catches, spectacular catches, and the ridiculous run after the catch on his first score (yes some shoddy tackling, but he dragged an MSU defender from the five yard line into the end zone) reminded us of how amazing this guy is. Believe it or not, but those TD grabs gives him only four on the season, but let's hope those numbers continue to go up.
IF we can continue to get the kind of performance we've seen from Gray the past two weeks then we should also get more performances like this from Da'Jon. There's not a DB in the conference who can cover him one-on-one, and he's proven time and again in his career he can beat double teams too. He's one of the top receivers in the B1G and he'll be playing on Sundays for somebody next year, and we need him to be that kind of elite play-maker the next three weeks and especially this Saturday.
The Gophers have shown some major improvements the past few weeks, and they'll need to take another step to hang with Wisconsin (despite their two losses they're still AVERAGING 47 points and over 500 yards of offense every week). Q and Da'Jon will need to lead the way again, and after what we've seen against Iowa and last Saturday against Michigan State, I like the chances of those guys being dangerous and the Wisconsin game being competitive. Not saying the Gophers will get The Axe back for the first time since 2003, but I think/hope it should be a very interesting rivalry game Saturday afternoon at The Bank.