Two weeks ago starting senior QB MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan. To that point the offense had been ok with him at the helm, and when sophomore backup Max Shortell hopped in to replace him, the offense seemed to spring to life. At that point I was all set to write the "IF Max Shortell plays well these next two weeks he should be the starter" post. But at the last minute I decided maybe it would be better to, you know, actually wait the two weeks to see if he indeed DID play well and then make the call from there. Well, the offense had a so-so performance against Syracuse and then got absolutely man-handled by Iowa on Saturday. That's not all Shortell's fault, but with the current talent surrounding the quarterback it's obvious now that MarQueis Gray gives this team the best chance for success.
What the Iowa debacle showed was that the problem with the offense isn't just about Shortell, it's also the players around him right now. This is a very young group of offensive players, both at the skills positions and on the line, and while I believe the future for the group is still very bright, their youth and inexperience showed up against Iowa. From what I could see from the corner of archaic Kinnick Stadium was that the Hawkeye defense was able to both get pressure on Shortell and cover everybody down field. While he didn't have a great afternoon with his accuracy (missing a wide-open Devin Crawford-Tufts behind the Iowa defense on a perfect play-action call in the first half was a killer), it did seem like there were far too many drop backs and roll outs where Shortell was getting pressured, needed to get rid of it, and had nobdoy open to throw to. I still love our receivers, but they struggled to get separation and get open against the Hawkeyes: AJ Barker led with 5 catches for 74 yards, TE Drew Goodger had 3 catches for 14 and a score, and noone else had more than 2 catches and 28 yards.
Our receivers were never going to be mistaken for the best or the fastest considering how young they are, but it was glaring how seldom they could get open. Part of that is on them, but the other is a lack of a running game without MarQueis. Iowa doesn't have a great group of receivers or tight ends either, but they had some guys WIDE open simply because of how well the running game was doing. It's football 101, but when the defense has to sell out to stop the run, it opens up the passing game on the play-action pass and Iowa worked that to perfection against the Gophers. Minnesota's receivers need that running game threat to create space for them, and it just simply didn't happen. Donnell Kirkwood is the only true running threat not wearing #5 right now, and the Hawkeyes shut him down to the tune of 12 carries for just 33 yards. The leading rusher? Shockingly it was Max Shortell who gained 46 yards on 12 "carries" at least four or five of which weren't carries at all, but Iowa sacks. The only two other players to get carries were true freshman KJ Maye (3 for 15) and...wait, David Cobb? Yep, he actually got in the game, and carried once for four yards and also had a catch for a yard as well.
If anyone has seen JUCO transfer James Gillum please alert the Gopher coaching staff immediately. The guy who was supposed to be the answer to our running game woes got beat out in fall practice by Kirkwood, and has given them next to nothing up until Saturday. Against the Hawkeyes, he literally gave them nothing as I don't believe he saw the field for an offensive play, and didn't register a carry or a catch in a game where the offense desparately needed somebody to help. Without Gray as an additional running threat, the defensive gameplan against the Gophers is to be to load up to stop the run knowing Shortell's not experienced enough to beat them throwing, and he doesn't have the receivers to get open consistently enough to hurt them.
All of this isn't to say Shortell can't be a successful Big Ten quarterback (and he'll certainly be fighting with freshmen Phillip Nelson and Mitch Leidner for the starting spot beginning next spring), it's just going to be difficult for it to happen against a good defense this season with this offense around him. We knew this was a young offense coming into 2012 and they could still be very good in time, but right now they need MarQueis Gray back to give them the best chance at success. Let's hope that ankle's healed and ready to go in two weeks for the Northwestern game.