MINNEAPOLIS -- By the time Ryan Nassib and Syracuse's aerial offense got off the ground against Northwestern and USC, it was just a little too late. So the Orange are focused on getting off to a better start.
Minnesota quarterback Max Shortell is just excited to be starting at all.
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Shortell will take the reins Saturday against the Orange after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain last week against Western Michigan. The sophomore threw three touchdowns in relief of Gray to help the Golden Gophers improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2008.
Shortell played in the season opener last year against USC when Gray went down, and he nearly rallied the Gophers to what would have been a stunning victory. But the first start of his career was a doozy -- a 58-0 loss at Michigan. A year later, Shortell is in a much different place.
"The (comfort level) for me is a completely different level than it was last year," Shortell said. "I'm so comfortable with my O-line and my receivers and my running back that I can trust in them in any situation."
Minnesota has benefited from a billowy soft schedule to get off to the fast start, but the competition will get a little stiffer against Syracuse (1-2) in the final nonconference game before the Big Ten season starts.
The Orange fell behind Northwestern 35-13 midway through the third quarter before making a game of it in a 42-41 loss. They were then down 21-3 against USC before the offense got going in a 42-29 defeat. They were even outgained in the first half against Stony Brook last week in a 28-17 win.
"We've got to keep on being aggressive. Right when we get out, we've got to attack," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "That's going to be the biggest test this week."
They will try to do it against a Gophers defense that looks improved after being one of the worst units in the nation for years. Minnesota's pass rush and safety play have taken the biggest strides, and the Gophers will get plenty of work against Nassib, who has thrown 146 passes in the first three games.
"We've really just got to go out there and attack, not wait to see what they're going to do," Nassib said. "Attack them and make them show their hand early."
The Gophers figure to open things up as well this week with Shortell under center. The 6-foot-6 Shortell has a bigger arm and is more of a classic, drop-back passer than Gray, a super-athletic senior leader who makes some of his biggest plays with his legs.
"Obviously Max is more of a thrower with more a pocket presence, whereas MarQueis is able to make plays on his feet," Minnesota receiver Derrick Engel said. "So we'll kind of find out going into the game."
Shortell may be younger and less experienced than Gray, but he doesn't lack confidence. His Twitter handle is (at) goldenarmgopher, and teammates say that the Kansas native carries himself with an infectious swagger.
"He likes to have fun. He doesn't beat himself up too much and keeps pretty much the whole team relaxed out there," Engel said. "MarQueis is really stern in the huddle, and he's really good with developing the players and getting them in the right spots."
Coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have made a concerted effort to give Shortell snaps with the first team in practice, both in the preseason and during the week to make sure he was ready to go if Gray went down.
"He's been through it all for a year now," Limegrover said. "He's not a rookie anymore. He's not starry-eyed. He came in, knew what he had to do."
Kill was asked this week if Shortell had the chance to win the starting job while Gray was out. The coach deferred, saying he'll make a decision when Gray is healthy, but it's clear that Shortell has a chance to take over not only this week but going forward as well if he does the job.
And the Gophers offense will look a little different until Gray returns.
"I think you always play to somebody's strengths and weakness," Kill said. "I think everybody quarterback has his strengths and weaknesses, even the best ones do, and we'll play to his strengths a little bit, but we don't have to start something all over again."