Football

Q&A with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Syracuse heads out to Minnesota looking for its second consecutive win. The team will face the Golden Gophers’ back-up quarterback, Max Shortell, after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high-ankle sprain last week. The Daily Orange spoke with Phil Miller, who covers the Gophers for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, about some important factors surrounding Saturday’s game, including what the Orange (1-2) can expect from Minnesota’s (3-0) quarterback situation.

The Daily Orange: Starting off, Minnesota hasn’t officially ruled MarQueis Gray out for Saturday, but realistically, is there any chance of him playing? In the event that he doesn’t start, what can Syracuse expect to see from Max Shortell, and is he a big drop off from Gray?

Phil Miller: There is no realistic chance of Gray playing; he hasn’t practiced all week, and he could barely jog at practice today. But Shortell is not a big dropoff from the starter. In fact, there is a sizable faction of Gopher fans who would prefer he be the starter. Shortell is 6-6 and has a strong arm, making him much more of a passing threat than Gray. His first series as quarterback last week included completions of 32, 24 and 9 yards, a touchdown march in less than three minutes that energized a drowsy crowd. He gives them a much more credible deep threat. He’s not the runner that Gray is, but he can still get downfield.

D.O.: The Gophers are off to a good start. Is that a product of an improved team from 2011, or more the quality of the opponents Minnesota’s played so far?

Miller: It’s hard to say it’s the quality of opponents, because when it comes to losing, the Gophers have never cared how bad the opposition is. They lost home games last year to New Mexico State and North Dakota State, and to Northern Illinois and South Dakota the year before. So at 3-0, there is no doubt the team is improved. What’s not known is how much better they really are, but just avoiding the embarrassing losses — and it still took three overtimes to beat UNLV — is a huge step forward.

D.O.: Syracuse’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense has been effective so far. Has Minnesota’s defense seen any of that this season, and if so, how did it perform? If not, how much of a focus has that been during this week’s practices?

Miller: Oh, it’s all the defense is talking about. They’re well aware of how fast the Orange like to play, but they saw some of that last week. Not quite the same, but Western Michigan used no-huddle the entire day, too, and the Gophers had some problems getting substitutes on and off the field quickly enough. So that’s a big concern. Also a big worry: The fact that, for the first time this year, they’ll be facing BCS-level athletes. Much, much talk about trying to match their speed.

D.O.: Marcus Sales has caught for 100 yards in each game this season, and has easily become Ryan Nassib’s No. 1 target. How does Sales match up against the Gophers’ secondary, and do they have the talent to be able to limit Sales’ production?

Miller: The secondary has been a bright spot for the Gophers so far — they haven’t allowed a 30-yard gain yet in their first three games. Both of the cornerbacks are seniors, so there shouldn’t be much they haven’t seen. It’s always a matter of consistency — and overaggressiveness — with them. The safeties may be the biggest surprise on the entire team, since two of the three who get the most playing time — Derrick Wells and Brock Vereen — are converted cornerbacks, and the third — Cedric Thompson — was mostly a tailback in high school. Wells especially has been a revelation — he handles most of the defensive signals, has two interceptions, and leads the team in tackles. Now, can that group slow down someone who may be the best receiver they will see this year? They have a history of being burned by great receivers, but they feel better about this group than they have in a long time. We’ll see.

D.O.: What would you say are three things Minnesota has to do this weekend in order to beat Syracuse?

Miller: Pressuring Nassib is a big one, because the Gophers are discovering the benefit of a decent pass rush, something they’ve also mostly lacked for a few years. Nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is developing into a real weapon on the line, and it’s making the entire defense better. And the best way to limit Sales may be to keep Nassib from having time to find him. Keeping Shortell comfortable is another one. This will be his third collegiate start, and his previous two … well, you might say they went badly. A 58-0 loss at Michigan and a 45-17 loss at Purdue. But Shortell was a true freshman back then, and he is undeniably a far more polished quarterback this year. Effectively running the ball would be my third one. The Gophers definitely subscribe to the theory that the best defense is an offense that keeps them off the field, and they seem to have the horse to get it done in sophomore tailback Donnell Kirkwood, who has stepped forward after a couple of injury-filled years to seize the starting job.

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