MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) — An injury to MarQueis Gray was arguably the last development Minnesota could afford this season.
Well, Gray got hurt, and the quarterback change was just what the Gophers needed to get going.
Max Shortell replaced Gray and passed for 188 yards and three touchdowns, helping Minnesota overcome a sluggish start to beat Western Michigan 28-23 on Saturday.
“You don’t want to lose your starting quarterback to injury, so that was a tough pill to swallow, but we weren’t like, ‘Quies is out. There’s no hope.’ No, we know what Max can do. So we’re fine,” said Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed 23 times for a career-high 110 yards.
Gray sprained his left ankle in the second quarter with the Gophers (3-0) trailing, but Shortell steered a six-play, 78-yard march for the go-ahead score that A.J. Barker capped with his second of three touchdown receptions. The Broncos went three and out, and Shortell found Barker open on the sideline for a 53-yard catch-and-run to make it 21-10 with 30 seconds left before halftime.
“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, and whatever happens, happens,” said Shortell, who finished 10 for 17 with one interception. He added: “Our offense was kind of stalled, so we had to get back on schedule.”
The shift from Gray’s scrambling style to Shortell, a pure pocket passer, was tough for the Broncos to adjust to.
“Take nothing away from Gray. He’s a great player, but the other guy can throw it around a little,” Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said. “I think that gave them a spark. You could sense it in the fans. I think they were struggling at that point offensively, and he gave them a much-needed boost for those guys.”
Gray was off, and the Gophers were calling a conservative game. He was 3 for 6 for 29 yards passing, plus 11 carries for 57 yards rushing. His last attempt ended badly, in a pile of tacklers with a serious injury. Gray watched the second half on crutches, with a wrap on his left knee and a boot on his left foot.
Antoin Scriven’s touchdown run for the Broncos cut the lead to 21-17 in the third quarter, but Shortell and the Gophers answered with a 9-yard scoring pass to tight end Drew Goodger to stretch the lead. The Gophers had only 10 touchdown passes last season, eight by Gray and two by Shortell. They have nine this year.
Dareyon Chance rushed 29 times for a career-high 144 yards and a touchdown for the Broncos (1-2), and Jaime Wilson caught 10 passes for 117 yards but Alex Carder had a number of overthrows while finishing 24 for 44 for 209 yards and one interception.
The Gophers went for it on fourth-and-15 at the WMU 34 with a little less than 6 minutes left in the game, and Shortell’s pass for Marcus Jones was overthrown. Carder’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Wilson capped a 66-yard cruise in barely 1½ minutes, pulling the Broncos with 28-23 after the 2-point conversion failed.
They got the ball back for a last chance, with no timeouts and 92 seconds remaining at their own 28-yard line, but Carder took a sack and his fourth-and-18 completion to Wilson was short of the marker.
Barker, a fourth-year junior who played at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and had one career catch before this season, finished with 101 yards on five receptions. He has four scores and 231 yards in three games.
“I don’t know if Western Michigan was ready to cover me or not, but I just took the opportunities given to me,” Barker said.
The Gophers haven’t been 3-0 since 2008. They’ve already matched their victory total in each of the last two seasons.
This was the first meeting between these programs since 1977. The Broncos have beaten Big Ten teams before, twice in Cubit’s eight seasons, against Illinois in 2008 and at Iowa in 2007. But he dropped to 2-11 against the Mid-American Conference’s big brother, and WMU fell to 6-34 all-time against Big Ten schools.
Carder threw for 31 touchdowns and averaged 322.8 yards passing in 12 games last year, but he lost his three top receivers. Then starters Timmy Keith and Eric Monette got hurt. Wilson, an elusive 5-foot-11 freshman from the Miami area, has emerged as a reliable target, but Carder has struggled to find a rhythm. He sailed a third-and-7 pass over tight end Blake Hammond’s head that would’ve been a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Then the Broncos missed a field goal.
The Gophers had consistently tight downfield coverage, and Michael Carter broke up two first-quarter passes and intercepted another at the WMU 26-yard line that he returned to the 8. Gray’s only good throw of the afternoon came next, perfectly placed to Barker on a post route to put Minnesota up 7-3.
The Gophers picked off only four passes last season, and they already have five this year.
Goodger, a sophomore, went to Northwest High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan., as did Carder, a fifth-year senior. That’s Shortell’s hometown, too, but he attended Bishop Miege High School in the Kansas City suburb.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)