Gophers drop season opener to Trojans

A better second half wasn’t enough to make up a sixteen-point deficit.

Minnesota freshman quarterback Max Shortell runs the ball Saturday in Los Angeles.  Shortell replaced Marqueis Gray after Gray left the game with leg cramps.

Mark Vancleave

Minnesota freshman quarterback Max Shortell runs the ball Saturday in Los Angeles. Shortell replaced Marqueis Gray after Gray left the game with leg cramps.

Derek Wetmore

LOS ANGELES âÄì The thought by many around the program to start the season was if the team was to have any success this season, MarQueis Gray would be a primary reason.

Minnesota dropped its season opener to USC 19-17, but played the Trojans surprisingly close after getting torched in the first half âÄì even without Gray for a chunk of the second half.

The team struggled to find a rhythm and compete with a superior USC team prior to the intermission, and the Gophers entered the half trailing 19-3.

Minnesota shut out the Trojans in the second half, though, and put up two touchdowns, one with true freshman quarterback Max Shortell at the helm.

Gray left the game near the end of the third quarter with cramps after it appeared he had started to find an offensive tempo.

Gray was replaced by Shortell, as he went to the locker room for intravenous hydration and did not return to the field.

Prior to Shortell entering, the Gophers started to build some momentum.

A high snap over the head of USC quarterback Matt Barkley was recovered by Mike Rallis and set the Gophers up in prime position. Duane Bennett closed the door on a four-play drive with a nine-yard touchdown scamper.

Then Shortell took over.

He rushed for a first down in his first play from scrimmage to open the fourth quarter, but had two incompletions in the next set of downs to force a punt.

In his first full drive, the freshman marched the team 83 yards down the field and hooked up with Brandon Green for a 12-yard touchdown with just more than eight minutes remaining in the game to pull Minnesota within two points.

A big defensive stop gave the Gophers the ball back with a few ticks more than two minutes left to play.

Four plays into the drive, Shortell tried to throw sideline to McKnightâÄôs back shoulder and was intercepted by Torin Harris, sealing MinnesotaâÄôs fate.

âÄúWeâÄôre definitely not happy with almost winning,âÄù senior defensive back Kim Royston said after the teamâÄôs strong second half. âÄúThereâÄôs a glimmer of hope to take from this, though.âÄù

âÄúI think as the game went on, we learned some things about each other and we got betterâĦ itâÄôs a bittersweet feeling.âÄù

Despite the better second half, wide receiver Robert Woods and the Trojans torched MinnesotaâÄôs defensive backs.

The sophomore had 11 catches for 115 yards and three scores by halftime.

The Gophers seemed to have no answer for Woods or junior quarterback Barkley.

Head coach Jerry Kill gave a pep talk out on the field prior to half time, and the team made some second-half adjustments to slow the Trojans down.

âÄúI felt like we were a processing team and we looked like a nervous team, and uncomfortable team.

âÄúWe came out in the second half and I think we settled down,âÄù Kill said.

âÄúIf weâÄôd have played with that confidence and intensity in the first half, it may be a little bit different story,âÄù he added.

He also said that the team had a problem with its headset communication in the first half, making it difficult to relay offensive plays into Gray.

The changes implemented at half âÄì Kill wouldnâÄôt specify on what was different âÄì kept Woods out of the endzone in the second half.

He wound up setting a career high for receptions and bested the USC mark for receptions anyways.

As for Gray, he congratulated Shortell for his performance in his first college game, but expressed disappointment over the poor first half and the bad timing of the injury.

âÄúIâÄôm not proud of today at all,âÄù Gray said. âÄúI wanted to play the whole game.âÄù

âÄúFor me to sit out most of the third quarter and miss the fourth quarter with cramps is going to be a hard-swallow for me.âÄù

He said afterwards he felt he could have played and was trying to work his way back to the field when his throwing arm and legs cramped up again.

Gray said he didnâÄôt want to force anything and didnâÄôt want the cramps to be a reason to make a mistake out on the field. Kill agreed, so he left Shortell in.

âÄúItâÄôs disappointing,âÄù Kill said to open his post-game press conference. âÄúWe had an opportunity to win the game. We just didnâÄôt do some things right early and I take full responsibility for that.âÄù

âÄúCoach Kill has got to do a better job and thatâÄôs the bottom line. I told the kids that weâÄôre going to keep working and keep moving the program forward.âÄù