NCF Nation: Matt Limegrover

MINNEAPOLIS -- Play calls in football have unusual names. Coaches assign the words to ensure clarity in the language barked at the line of scrimmage, to offer a reminder of the formation or personnel.

Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.

Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.

Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota took a page out of Nebraska's playbook to pull out the victory against the No. 24 Huskers.
Yes, Minnesota went big against 24th-ranked Nebraska in this 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Huskers at their own once-dominant game, punishing the Blackshirts in a way Nebraska has for 50 years trounced Minnesota.

The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.

You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.

Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.

“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.

Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.

Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.

“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”

They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.

Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.

A small army of Huskers limped off the field.

“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”

Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.

“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”

It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.

And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.

You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?

“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”

Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.

Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”

Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.

“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.

It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.

“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”

Saturday gave them belief.

Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.

The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.

It’s a new age at Nebraska.

At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
By the end of last season, Minnesota's offense was being held together by little more than spit and string.

Offensive line injuries and a general lack of depth had the coaching staff scrambling for anything that would work. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover remembers the desperation that went into writing out the game plan for those final few weeks in November.

[+] EnlargeDonnell Kirkwood
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidFollowing a solid 2012 season, running back Donnell Kirkwood and the Gophers' offensive unit are excited for what's ahead in the upcoming year.
"We got to where we were putting up plays and going, 'OK, we hope this one gets us five yards. If we run this one once, hopefully it's enough to get us into a second-and-normal situation,'" Limegrover told ESPN.com. "There just wasn't that flow."

Everything changed during bowl season. The offensive linemen regained their health and the coaches got 15 extra practices to reset the approach. After averaging just 13.5 points per game over their final four regular-season contest, the Gophers scored 31 against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Though they lost that game, they gained something potentially more valuable: an offensive identity.

"Really for the first time since we've been here, I feel like a lot of the components of what we want to do and who we want to be are in place," said Limegrover, who is entering Year 3 in the Twin Cities along with the rest of head coach Jerry Kill's staff.

The confidence earned in that bowl performance has carried over into spring practice. Minnesota discovered last December that it had something to build its offense around: a strong running game. The Gophers ran for 222 yards against Texas Tech and are looking to continue that same hard-nosed philosophy this year.

It helps that they return leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood, whose 926 yards as a junior were the most by a Gopher back since 2006. The 223-pound Kirkwood came into spring focused on correcting all the little mistakes he made last year and learning not to dwell on them.

"I'm more comfortable with myself," he said. "I'm not grading myself as hard and not getting in the gutter when I do something bad. I'm very critical of myself, but I've kind of learned that's part of the game. I've got to keep playing after mistakes."

Limegrover says Kirkwood is becoming more of a complete back in all areas of his game.

"The guys up front love him," Limegrover said. "They know he's going to run hard and he's going to hit where he needs to hit. They know that if we do our job, he makes us look good."

Kirkwood is also getting pushed by 235-pound sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr., who came on late last season and ran for 60 yards and a touchdown in the bowl. And Limegrover said junior David Cobb might have the most natural ability of all the running backs on the roster and could "really be a kid that pops on the scene" if he figures out the finer points of the game.

Minnesota has some backs with meat on their bones and an offensive line that is starting to develop a nasty streak, even with tackle Ed Olson out this spring because of an injury.

"The days are gone of saying, 'Well, our offensive line is young, they're inexperienced,'" Limegrover said. "We've got to step up and be able to play with the big boys up front. I don't know if offensive linemen ever have a swagger, but there's definitely a different feeling in that room right now about what we can and can't do."

Having that power run game should also benefit quarterback Philip Nelson. Not only will it open things up in the play-action game, but the Gophers won't have to ask Nelson to run the ball as much. Limegrover said Minnesota relied too much on the quarterback run game last year because it went into the season thinking it would have MarQueis Gray under center all year. Now, they can use it as a complementary piece of the offense and pick their spots with it.

The passing game still needs polish, but the running game has given the Gophers a great building block. At a recent Saturday practice, Limegrover said the offense was clicking like an advanced operation.

"I had to kind of readjust my eyes because things were happening very quickly," he said. "It was really the first time since I've been here where we were like, 'Wow, that happened pretty fast.'"

And the days of holding together the offense with spit and string seemed like a distant memory.
Three keys for Minnesota in tonight's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas Tech:

1. Get creative offensively: The Gophers had major trouble finding the end zone for large parts of the season. Injuries at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line kept the Minnesota offense stuck in neutral; it averaged just 13.3 points per game in every Big Ten game except an outlying 44-point outburst against Purdue. The month off has given time for those nicks and bruises to heal and should help senior quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray be as effective as he was early in the season. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover needs to maximize ways to use the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray along with true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and lead tailback Donnell Kirkwood. The Gophers are still limited at receiver, with A.J. Barker quitting and Andre McDonald suspended. Limegrover must be creative in finding ways to move the ball and somehow keep up with Texas Tech's wide-open offense.

2. Control the skies: Texas Tech had the No. 2 passing attack in the country, averaging 362 yards per game in the air this season. That's no surprise, given the recent history in Lubbock. The good news for Minnesota is that defending the pass is the Gophers' strength -- they had the No. 11 pass defense in the country this season. Cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire must turn in great games, along with safety Derrick Wells, against standout receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. That won't be enough against a team likely to line up four and five wide receivers every snap, so defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite will have to get pressure on Seth Doege and find ways to disrupt his rhythm. At the very least, the Gophers must take a bend-but-don't-break attitude and force the Red Raiders to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

3. Do all the little things right: Let's be honest: Minnesota is a huge underdog in this game and would probably be playing a much easier opponent if Ohio State and Penn State were bowl eligible. It's a tough matchup for a team that doesn't score a whole lot in what is almost a road game. But the Gophers still have a chance against a Texas Tech squad that lost four of its final five and saw its head coach bolt for Cincinnati after the season. They just have very little margin for error. Special teams have to come up big. They can't afford many penalties. And they absolutely must win the turnover battle and keep the Red Raiders offense off the field as much as possible. They're going to need some luck and to play nearly a perfect game. The good news: Minnesota should be far more excited to be in this game than the Red Raiders.

Big Ten predictions: Bowl picks

December, 27, 2012
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Big Ten bowl season officially arrives tomorrow night when Minnesota kicks off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against Texas Tech.

Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.

But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17


Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16


Heart of Dallas Bowl

PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27


Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28


TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24


Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27


Outback Bowl

No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17


Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16


Capital One Bowl

No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23

Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.


Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.


Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23


Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)

Precocious Nelson has Gophers on move

October, 31, 2012
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Minnesota coach Jerry Kill knew he was getting a special player when he recruited quarterback Philip Nelson. He just didn't expect to reap the benefits so soon.

The Gophers had planned to redshirt Nelson this season. But after MarQueis Gray injured his ankle and the offense stalled a bit under Max Shortell, those plans changed quickly.

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota freshman Philip Nelson has made a strong early impression on the Gophers.
"We were missing something," Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told ESPN.com. "We're not good enough right now as an offense, particularly up front, to say 'OK, we're going to have a quarterback manage the game and not ask him to do anything with his legs, and we're just going to mash people.' We just can't do that right now."

So in came Nelson two weeks ago to start at Wisconsin. And after his jaw-dropping home debut last week against Purdue, suddenly the entire outlook for Minnesota has changed.

The 19-year-old stunned the Boilermakers by completing 13 of his first 14 and threw three touchdowns with no interceptions as the Gophers zoomed out to a 34-7 halftime lead. We named him our Big Ten player of the week for that effort.

How does a true freshman in only his second collegiate game perform like that? Minnesota coaches say Nelson isn't your average freshman quarterback.

"Through 30 years of coaching, I've been fortunate to always get a quarterback that has the 'It' factor," said Kill, who recruited Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch to Northern Illinois. "Philip is along those lines. He's just got that knack for playing the game."

"When all his DNA was put together," Limegrover says, "it was put together to be a quarterback."

Nelson's father, Pat, was a quarterback at Wisconsin in the 1970s. Philip was Minnesota's Mr. Football out of Mankato West High school, where he set state passing records and learned how to command a no-huddle offense. Nelson enrolled at Minnesota last spring to get a jump on his college career.

"You could see that development start right away, almost literally the first day he came to campus," Limegrover said. "By the time he got to fall camp, it wasn't like he was a kid showing up for the first time. He already kind of had a veteran presence about him when we started."

So why did it take until Week 6 for the Gophers to play Nelson? Well, they had Gray, who came on strong at the end of last season and who is a dangerous dual threat. Nelson had a hamstring injury in fall camp that set him back a little bit. And remember, Minnesota started 4-0.

"There wasn't a sense that we had to push the urgency button," Kill said. "You wish you had a crystal ball to make all the predictions of what has happened the last four or five weeks, but we don't. ... I think the best thing about Philip is that he's learned a lot through this process the whole time."

Nelson didn't learn until late in the week before the Wisconsin game that he would be starting, but he took the decision in stride. Listen to him in interviews, and he already sounds like a polished veteran. He told reporters that he prepared every week as if he would be the starter "just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me." And he has made the wise move of rooming with three offensive line starters -- Josh Campion, Caleb Bak and Marek Lenkiewicz -- to build a bond with his most important supporting cast members.

Limegrover praises Nelson's unflappability, accuracy and smarts, in addition to his quick release and mobility at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds. In last week's game against Purdue, Nelson threw away a few passes where it looked like Minnesota might have been able to make a play. Limegrover thought those were wasted opportunities -- until he watched the film.

"When you look at, you're like, 'Oh, my, I see exactly why he did what he did,'" Limegrover said. "He didn't want to turn ball over or he didn't want to take a sack or maybe he knew we were already in field goal range. That's something that is really underestimated in quarterbacks in general and especially young quarterbacks, that kind of decision-making."

Minnesota (5-3) is now just one win away from bowl eligibility with Michigan coming to TCF Bank Stadium this week. The Wolverines, who beat the Gophers 58-0 in Ann Arbor last season, will provide a stiff test for the young quarterback with their disciplined defense. But Kill's team has now found its new leader on offense, along with another weapon at receiver in the multi-talented Gray. So Minnesota is thinking big.

"Last year, we talked about there were two embarrassing games for us, against Purdue and Michigan," Nelson said. "We made one of them right, and we're ready to go make another one right this week."
In late June, a group of Minnesota offensive linemen passed Matt Limegrover in the hallway of Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex and did double-takes.

"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.

"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."

Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.

"They got a big kick out of that," he said.

As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.

Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.

"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.

"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."

While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.

Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.

A big reason for the futility: no identity.

Brandon Green
Rick Osentoski/US Presswire The Golden Gophers expect Brandon "Mr. Dependable" Green to be a leader in the receiving corps.
"We just weren't sure of who we were as an offense," Limegrover said. "That hurt us because we tried too hard to do all the things we had been doing at Northern Illinois, and this was a different group. It's Year 1 at Minnesota, not Year 4 at Northern Illinois."

Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).

Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.

"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."

The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.

Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.

"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."

About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.

Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.

"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.

"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."
Offensive linemen are usually a pretty anonymous bunch by nature, but Minnesota has taken that to another level in recent years.

You won't find any names from the Gophers' O-line on the Outland or Rimington trophy watch lists this preseason, or on any preseason All-Big Ten teams, for that matter. That's just continuing a recent trend. No Minnesota offensive lineman has been named a first-team All-Big Ten performer since Outland winner Greg Eslinger and Matt Setterstrom both did so way back in 2005.

That's an awful long time for a program that used to produce outstanding linemen on a regular basis, and the current players know all about the drought.

Ed Olson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMinnesota linemen, such as left tackle Ed Olson, have focused on bulking up this offseason.
"All offseason, we've been saying we've got to get a name for ourselves," tackle Ed Olson said. "We haven't had the best name for Minnesota football in the past few years, not since Matt and Greg."

One could understand why the Gophers have struggled to produce, say, All-American defensive tackles or first-round quarterbacks. But their roster should seemingly be chock full of burly linemen, given their location and the demographics of their state. After all, the flagship programs in neighboring states Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska all consistently field strong lines anchored by pro prospects.

"There's no question that you've got to do a good job in your state, and with where we're at, we've got to be able to get the big, strong physical kids," second-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "That's who you are. That's the state of Minnesota -- hard-working, lunch-pail type people -- and we need to recruit and develop a football team with the mentality of our state."

Kill has always had physical teams known for running the ball at his previous four head-coaching stops, and that's what he's hoping to build with the Gophers. It all starts with recruiting, and that's why Kill is excited about two in-state, incoming freshmen the Gophers signed in February: Jonah Pirsig, a 6-foot-8, 300-pounder who was offered by Wisconsin and Iowa; and Ben Lauer, a 6-6, 260-pound tackle.

"Wisconsin made a pretty good living on our side [of the border] there for a while, but we've been able to keep some of those players in-state," Kill said. "And you once get length and size, you've got to build it in the weight room."

Minnesota has been trying to do that with the current players, and Kill said last week that the offensive linemen have put on an average of 15 to 20 pounds per man this offseason. Olson is a great example; the fourth-year junior weighed 290 pounds last season but said Friday that he's up to 320 now.

The starting left tackle might be the Gophers' best chance for a breakout star on the line this season. He was recruited by Iowa and Michigan but chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, also named Ed, who played for Minnesota in the early 1980s. His younger brother, Tommy, is one of three freshmen who started games on the line a year ago.

"We were young last year, but I think all that experience is making us all push each other more in the offseason," Ed Olson said. "[Offensive coordinator] Matt Limegrover always tells us that everything starts up front, and we take pride in that."

This much is for sure: Minnesota will need to start churning out standout offensive linemen again if it wants to finish higher in the Big Ten standings.
Offensive lineman Brian Bobek, who announced earlier this month that he would transfer from Ohio State, is headed to play for Minnesota.

Bobek on Saturday released a statement to several media outlets, including ESPN.com, confirming his move to the Gophers. Because of Big Ten rules about transferring between conference members, Bobek will lose a season of eligibility in 2012 as he sits out because of NCAA transfer rules. He will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2013. Bobek will pay his own way this fall because Minnesota is at its scholarship maximum (85). He will be on scholarship with the Gophers beginning in January 2013.

Bobek says in his statement that Minnesota was one of the first schools to contact him when he announced his intention to transfer. Head coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover reached out after receiving permission from Ohio State.
"Coaches Kill and Limegrover are exceptional coaches, and I am confident they and the rest of the staff are on the way to restoring the winning tradition of the Minnesota football program," Bobek's statement reads. "I look forward to making a contribution to Minnesota football and, once eligible, having an opportunity to achieve my personal goals as a football player. The University of Minnesota offers a quality education, and I hope to take advantage of the many opportunities of going to school in a great city like Minneapolis. Also, my family and I are happy for me to have the chance to continue to compete in the Big Ten, one of the best football conferences in the country.
"I once again want to thank the athletic department and football program at The Ohio State University for their consideration and assistance in easing my transition to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Golden Gopher football program."

Bobek played a bit as a freshman last season for the Buckeyes. A highly touted recruit, he had been projected as the successor to four-year starter Michael Brewster at center, but he slipped to No. 3 on the depth chart this spring.

The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Bobek is a good pickup for Minnesota, which is looking to upgrade depth on the offensive line and restore its reputation in the trenches.
When Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover learned receiver Marcus Jones had torn his ACL during a practice in late October, he began doing the math.

An ACL injury used to mean up to a year on the sideline. Although improvements in medicine and rehabilitation techniques had shortened the recovery time, Limegrover remained realistic about Jones' prognosis.

"It was like, 'OK, let's have him take this thing slow,'" Limegrover recalled. "'He'll be out through spring ball. Fortunately, he's a smart kid, so he'll be able to pick it back up in July.'

"Next thing you know, he's out here."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Jones
Tim Fuller/US PresswireMarcus Jones flashed some big-play ability last season before sustaining his season-ending injury.
When Minnesota kicked off spring practice March 22 -- less than five months after the injury -- Jones was in uniform on the field. His rapid recovery surprised just about everybody, including himself.

The sophomore wide receiver is cleared to participate in everything except full-contact scrimmages. Barring a setback, he'll get full clearance when Minnesota opens preseason camp in August.

"I didn't really think it would be this quick," Jones told ESPN.com, "but my trainers, especially head trainer Ed Lochrie, they told me I would come back, just as long as I did my rehab like I was supposed to. The harder you do your rehab, the quicker recovery you make.

"And I made a very quick recovery."

Jones had never missed a game in his athletic career until he sat out Minnesota's Oct. 29 win against Iowa, which took place just days after he suffered his injury while returning a kick in practice. The Wake Forest, N.C., native played through a sprained MCL in high school and some broken bones as a baseball player, but he'd never suffered a major injury until last fall. Before the ligament tear, Jones had shown big-play ability as a true freshman, averaging 15.8 yards per reception and 28.5 yards per kick return, including a 92-yard touchdown against Purdue.

He had some initial concerns with the injury, but team doctor J. Patrick Smith, who performed Jones' surgery, told him the recovery isn't as long as it used to be. When Jones began his rehab, he didn't put a timetable on anything.

"I just knew I didn't want to lose any speed or any strength," Jones said.

He hasn't lost a step this spring, at least according to his friends who play defense for the Gophers.

"They tell me I'm ready to get hit, that I need to stop faking it," Jones said. "I guess everybody's ready for me to get back, and I'm definitely ready to get back."

Looking at his recovery, it's hard to believe he was ever hurt in the first place.

Jones' presence this spring has felt like the bonus to Limegrover, who likens Jones to a playmaking recruit who enrolled early but also already has knowledge of the offense. Limegrover understands why Jones can't engage in contact until preseason practice, but the coach admits to getting greedy at times.

"He gets out there and starts doing seven-on-seven, running routes and moving around," Limegrover said. "As an offensive coordinator, we can use every playmaker we've got to complement [quarterback MarQueis Gray]. And I'm thinking to myself, 'Does he really need to not have contact? Can we get him in there in scrimmage situations?'

"That's how good he looked."

Minnesota needs more weapons to surround Gray, who will enter his second year as the starting quarterback and his second year in Limegrover's offense. The Gophers lose top wideout Da'Jon McKnight, who last season accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions (38.1 percent) and 760 of the team's 1,804 receiving yards (42.1 percent). McKnight had 35 more receptions and 640 more receiving yards than any other Minnesota player in 2011.

Jones, who played the first five games last season before celebrating his 18th birthday on Oct. 3, could help fill the production void. He's only 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds and is "not as fast as people want to believe," Limegrover said, but the young wideout has good knowledge of his responsibilities in the offense.

"He knows what routes to run and he knows what to do once he catches the football," Limegrover said. "Those are two things that right now are at a bit of a premium here. And the third part is Marcus is kind of like MarQueis' little brother. Those guys, they have a real connection."

Jones continues to work as a kick returner and also has practiced as a punt returner this spring, rotating with Troy Stoudermire at both spots. Jones, who will play wherever he's needed, enjoys competing with Stoudermire, the Big Ten-record holder in career kick return yards (3,102).

"I keep telling him I'm going to beat his record," Jones said. "I say it jokingly, but I hope I can really do it."

After what he has done in the past six months, don't bet against him.
Brandon Green has been MarQueis Gray's roommate for the past two years, and the two Minnesota teammates share many of the same classes. So Green has a close friendship with his quarterback. But even strangers could tell that Gray needs a little more support on the field in 2012.

Gray got much better as the season went along in 2011 and has the potential to develop into a star this year for the Gophers. He carried a heavy workload last year, though, as he led the team in both rushing (966 yards) and carries (199) as well as throwing the ball. In the last two games of the season, he rushed 27 times each.

[+] EnlargeMarqueis Gray
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Gophers are planning to have quarterback MarQueis Gray run less and throw more in the upcoming season.
"We want to cut that down some so he can throw some more," Green said. "I feel like with the running backs and receivers we've got back, we can make plays for him and reduce the load down on him."

That confidence is based more on potential than past evidence this spring. Minnesota's top receiver the past couple of seasons, Da'Jon McKnight, was a senior last year. The leading returning pass catcher is Green, who had just 15 receptions in 2011. The Gophers also lost last year's leading rusher at tailback, departed senior Duane Bennett, and Donnell Kirkwood is injured this spring.

Still, Minnesota -- which lacked a lot of big plays on offense in head coach Jerry Kill's first season -- is hopeful that more options and more comfort at the skill positions will translate into a more diversified attack.

"If we have nothing else, all the way around we have competition," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.

The Gophers need someone to emerge at running back, both to take the pressure off Gray to carry the ball and to turn their rushing game into a two-pronged danger. It's an unproven group this spring, which is a big reason why Minnesota brought in junior college transfer James Gillum, who ran for 1,042 yards at Mississippi Gulf Coast last year.

"The thing about I like about him was that he was down in Mississippi playing against SEC linebackers and defensive ends," Limegrover said. "And no offense to his offensive linemen, but sometimes those are in-state guys. So a lot of times he was making something out of just nothing, and he was still grinding out 130, 140 yards per game.

"I feel like he brings kind of a grit as a guy who can say, 'OK, hand me the ball and I'll do my thing.'"

Kill also pointed to David Cobb, who played sparingly as a true freshman, as a 220-pound standout athlete who could contribute at tailback.

The receiver position has more bodies than this time a year ago but no true leader. But Green, who's now a senior, wants to change that.

"Now that Da'Jon is gone, I've got the most experience," he said. "I feel like it's my time to step up and lead the receivers and do what I need to do to help us win."

Other possibilities in the passing game are Devin Crawford-Tufts, who played as a true freshman in 2011; Marcus Jones, who's coming off an ACL injury; Malcolm Moulton, who played some as a junior-college import last year; and new juco transfer Isaac Fruechte.

"There's a lot of depth, and different receivers can do different things," Green said. "I feel like we've got a lot of weapons where MarQueis can go out and pass the ball around."

If so, his roommate might have less of a burden to carry in 2012.
Minnesota coaches know that MarQueis Gray is their best player. At the same time, Gray doesn't fit into a conventional view of quarterback play.

A 6-foot-4, 240-pounder who played receiver before last season, Gray is an imposing runner in the open field who needs more polish as a pocket passer. So the Gophers went looking for ways to best utilize his talents this offseason, and that quest led them to study the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

Three Minnesota offensive assistants visited Baylor last month. Their goal was to see how Bears coach Art Briles and his staff helped develop Robert Griffin III from an athlete playing quarterback into a guy who completed more 72 percent of his passes en route to the Heisman.

[+] EnlargeMarQueis Gray
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireBecoming a more efficient passer is something MarQueis Gray is working on this offseason.
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover stresses that he doesn't expect Gray to wind up in New York City next December. He and Griffin aren't exactly the same type of player.

"But they're in the same ballpark," Limegrover said. "We saw [Griffin] on film a couple of years ago when we were preparing for Kent State at Northern Illinois, and Kent State had played Baylor. You could tell he was a really good athlete but not a finished product. Somewhere along the line, Baylor made kind of a fundamental shift in the way they approached things. They allowed him to maximize what he did best."

That's what the Minnesota coaches hope to do with Gray, even if it means changing the way they've traditionally run their offense. Limegrover said the trip to Baylor may have only provided little tips, like a passing route concept or how Griffin approached pre- and post-snap situations. But it could help them think about new strategies.

"It would be a real shame if we just sat here and said, 'Let's just do it exactly the same way we have been doing it, and he'll just figure it out,'" Limegrover said. "I think we would be doing that kid and this team and really our entire fan base a disservice."

The Gophers made some adjustments to the offense as 2011 went along, but a series of nagging injuries held back Gray's development in the first half of the season. Gray started to show what he could do down the stretch, leading the team to a comeback victory over Iowa, throwing for 295 yards and three touchdowns against an excellent Michigan State defense and running for 327 yards in the final two games.

Still, he finished the season with a completion rate just a hair over 50 percent. He has focused this offseason on becoming a better passer.

"I've been working a lot on my throwing mechanics," Gray said. "I think we'll be able to go deep a lot more this season. I'll always be able to run the ball -- that's what I'm known for. I'm trying to do a better job of getting my timing down with the wide receivers and tight ends."

Limegrover learned a few things about Gray last year. He found out that Gray doesn't like to stand at the line of scrimmage for very long and that he's better when he can get the snap quickly. So the Gophers are designing ways where Gray can do more of his thinking and reacting once the ball is in his hands.

Limegrover also wants to get his quarterback out of the pocket and make throws on the move, which feels more natural to him. But the most important thing Gray can do this offseason, Limegrover said, is to become a leader. With seniors like Da'Jon McKnight and Duane Bennett gone and a young supporting cast around him, this is Gray's team in 2012.

"I would never say MarQueis has to rush for 1,000 yards or throw for 2,000," Limegrover said. "But MarQueis has to be fully aware that he's the unquestioned leader of the offense and what he does, how he goes about his business, they will follow.

"I think he's improving daily in that area. He's getting after it, getting after his teammates. He has an air about him this year where the other guys look at him and say, 'OK, this guy can do it. Let's go help him get it done.'"

Gray said he first asserted his leadership in the second half of the Oct. 29 Iowa game. That's when he called his offense together and told them they needed to stop making so many mistakes. Minnesota rallied for a shocking 22-21 upset, with Gray scoring the game-winner on a short touchdown run.

As for what exactly his coaches picked up at Baylor in their RG3 research, Gray said that will be kept a secret until the Gophers start spring practice on March 22. But he's anxious to see how that can help his game.

"He learned to be more of a quarterback as an athlete," Gray said. "Hopefully we can use some of the things they learned down there to help me do the same."

Big Ten quarterback quandary checkup

September, 27, 2011
9/27/11
5:30
PM ET
Seven Big Ten teams have clear-cut starting quarterbacks entering Week 5, including Ohio State, which has turned to freshman signal caller Braxton Miller.

The other five squads have quarterback questions.

Let's take a quick look at each of them:

INDIANA HOOSIERS

The quarterbacks: Edward Wright-Baker, Dusty Kiel

The quandary: Wright-Baker has started the first four games and has limited mistakes, throwing only two interceptions in 129 pass attempts. But Indiana is struggling in the red zone, having scored just seven touchdowns on 13 opportunities. Coach Kevin Wilson wants to see red zone touchdown conversions at 75-80 percent, at a minimum. Kiel rallied the Hoosiers late in last Saturday's loss to North Texas.

The latest: Wright-Baker remains the starter on the depth chart and likely will start the Big Ten opener against Penn State. Kiel, who took advantage of blown coverages against North Texas, is still very much in the mix. But it doesn't sound like Wilson feels Wright-Baker is the big problem with the offense.

The quote: "I don't think we have a controversy. At the same, time, they're neck-and-neck." -- Kevin Wilson

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

The quarterbacks: MarQueis Gray, Max Shortell

The quandary: Gray has started the first four games, but after a record-setting performance in Week 3 against Miami (Ohio), he took a significant step back in last Saturday's loss to North Dakota State. He has completed only 50.6 percent of his passes. Shortell, a freshman, has seen action late in several games and has thrown two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The latest: Gray remains the starter for the Big Ten opener at Michigan, but the coaches are looking at certain packages where they can use Shortell. Although coach Jerry Kill's return to the team from his second hospital stay this month isn't known, the Gophers' offensive staff plans to go with the hot hand.

The quote: "Yes, yes. And that will continue on until we feel like Max gets to a point where he does a significant number of things better than MarQueis. But MarQueis is a special kid. There are things he does that we really love about him." -- offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, asked if Gray is still the starter

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

The quarterbacks: Dan Persa, Kain Colter

The quandary: Persa will make his season debut Saturday at Illinois after a long rehab from a ruptured Achilles' tendon he sustained last November. The senior has looked good throwing the ball in practice but also appears somewhat limited as a runner. Colter started the first three games, playing well in the first two and struggling mightily in a Week 3 loss to Army.

The latest: Persa will return in Champaign, but whether he starts will be determined by his performance this week in practice, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Persa feels like he's healthy enough to play a full game, but he likely will be rusty after such a long layoff. Northwestern won't neglect Colter, arguably the team's best ball-carrier, and find a role for the sophomore in the offense.

The quote: "He's not only mentally ready, he's chomping at the bit to play. For a young man like Dan, the work ethic that he's been committed to, no disrespect to any other player in college football, but no one's had to go through what he's gone through this offseason. He's handled it as well as anybody could." -- Pat Fitzgerald

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

The quarterbacks: Rob Bolden, Matthew McGloin

The quandary: Penn State has rotated Bolden and McGloin in each of the first four games. The coaches repeatedly say they haven't seen one separate himself either in practice or in games, although McGloin has put up better numbers the past two weeks and earned Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Eastern Michigan. Bolden, meanwhile, looked like the better player against Penn State's top opponent thus far, Alabama, and also led the game-winning drive at Temple.

The latest: Bolden and McGloin remain co-starters on the depth chart for the Big Ten opener at Indiana. Coach Joe Paterno fully expects both to play in Bloomington. Bolden has started the first four games, but Paterno said Tuesday he "couldn't tell you who we're going to start" at Indiana.

The quote: "We're fortunate enough to have two good quarterbacks. This week, both quarterbacks will play. Where we go from there, I really don't know." -- Joe Paterno

PURDUE BOILERMAKERS

The quarterbacks: Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve

The quandary: A season-ending injury to projected starter Rob Henry forced TerBush into the spotlight, and the junior has handled himself fairly well. He has completed 63 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception. Marve is now healthy after dealing with a knee injury since the beginning of camp. Marve, whose talent has never been in question, started the 2010 season before tearing an ACL. Both quarterbacks played well in a Week 3 rout of Southeast Missouri State, combining to complete 21 of 25 passes for 234 yards.

The latest: TerBush will start Saturday against Notre Dame, but coach Danny Hope has reiterated that his team needs two quarterbacks who are ready to play. Hope wants to create continuity at quarterback after being forced to bleed through his depth chart last year because of injury. So TerBush is No. 1 for now. But Hope and the coaching staff have never hidden their positive feelings about Marve.

The quote: "We can win with both of those guys and both of those guys will be able to help us win this Saturday. And throughout the course of the year, there will be competition, but it's nice to have a little bit of continuity at the quarterback position for a change." -- Danny Hope
Anyone who watched Jerry Kill's sideline seizure Saturday afternoon couldn't imagine the Minnesota coach returning to his duties within days.

But Kill has been through seizures before, and once again he's speeding down the comeback trail.

Minnesota team physician Pat Smith told reporters Monday that Kill likely will coach the Golden Gophers this week against Miami (Ohio). Smith said Kill will be released from the hospital "sooner than later."

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, a longtime Kill assistant, has told players their coach could be back as soon as Wednesday's practice.

Here's what Limegrover told WCCO radio:
"When it comes upon him, there's not much he can do. It's kind of a perfect storm of circumstances that brought this upon him. Now it's just about getting the medication he's on regulated. It's just getting past the trauma of having the seizure. In the past, it's been several days of recovery."

The 50-year-old Kill also had seizures during games in 2001 and 2005. Both times, he returned for the following game.

Needless to say, this is great news and we continue to wish Kill a speedy recovery. Having Kill on the sideline this week against Miami (Ohio) should provide a huge boost for Gophers players, who were in shock like the rest of us on Saturday.

Update on Minnesota coach Jerry Kill

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
4:23
PM ET
Many of you have asked for updates regarding the condition of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who had a seizure on the sideline late in Saturday's game against New Mexico State.

Brian and I will try to provide as many updates as possible until Kill returns to his duties, which we hope is soon!

According to a Minnesota news release sent Sunday, Kill is continuing to show signs of improvement and is resting comfortably at a local hospital. Minnesota team physician Dr. Pat Smith says all tests performed on Kill to this point have shown normal results. Further testing will continue, and Smith hasn't said when Kill could be released from the hospital.

Another update on Kill's status is expected Monday.
"Coach Kill is in good hands and is receiving the very best in medical care," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said in a prepared statement. “Right now the reports we have received from our medical staff are positive and I am very pleased that he continues to show steady signs of improvement."

This is certainly good news after some scary moments Saturday. Here's wishing coach Kill a speedy recovery.

Assistant head coach Bill Miller and coordinators Matt Limegrover and Tracy Claeys are leading the team during Kill's absence.

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