(Updates. With AP Photos.) By JON KRAWCZYNSKI AP Sports Writer The passes that didn't sail 10 feet over a wide-open receiver's head fluttered and wobbled out of MarQueis Gray's hand like he was a nervous freshman making his first collegiate start.
On a Minnesota offense full of fresh-faced youngsters, the senior quarterback looked shakier than any of them in the season opener against UNLV. If the Golden Gophers are going to improve in coach Jerry Kill's second year on the job, Gray knows it has to start with him.
''I didn't feel like I played my best game and I felt like if we would've lost that game it would've been because of me,'' Gray said on Tuesday. ''It was good to see those guys stepped up and we all turned it on in overtime and it was just a sigh of relief to know that we came out with a win.''
The Gophers survived, 30-27 in triple overtime, thanks in large part to Gray settling down and throwing two big touchdown passes to John Rabe. He finished 17 of 30 for 269 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, solid numbers that belie the difficulty he had in regulation.
Gray's young receivers had little trouble getting open against UNLV's lackluster secondary, but Gray continually overshot targets like Rabe, Isaac Fruechte and Andre McDonald on plays that had touchdowns written all over them.
''I had a couple overthrown balls, mainly just because I was anxious to be back out there,'' Gray said. ''Not being hesitant or not scared at all, just more of that anxiousness kicking in.''
Kill downplayed the rough start, chalking it up to a lack of timing and Gray shaking the rust off in his first game of the season.
''When you have people wide open, you certainly want to execute those throws,'' Kill said. ''Film doesn't lie. You go in and you teach from those films and say, `These are the things we have to do.'''
Coaches are working with Gray this week on giving his receivers a better chance to make a play on the ball down the field in Minnesota's home opener against New Hampshire. Kill said they're emphasizing not overthrowing passes down the field because an underthrown ball could still give the receiver a chance to jump over a smaller defensive back to make the catch or draw a pass interference penalty.
By all accounts, Gray had shown significant improvement with his accuracy during the summer and training camp after posting one of the worst completion percentages in the bowl subdivision last year. And it wasn't as if the opener was all bad for Gray.
He made the plays he needed to in overtime, answering a UNLV touchdown with a 10-yard scoring pass to Rabe and then a 25-yarder on the next possession to help Minnesota avoid another disappointing loss in a history full of them.
''I didn't see anybody when the chips were down saying, `Here we go again,''' Kill said. ''Last year that's all I saw. MarQueis hung in there and he made some plays at the end of the game. He stayed in there pretty good.''
As one of the oldest players on the roster, especially one who plays the game's most important position, everyone is looking to Gray to be the steady hand and reliable leader the group needs. He was able to keep his cool on the sideline against UNLV, not letting the frustration of missed opportunities bubble over and rattle his younger teammates.
Now they need him to be as cool and composed in the pocket, and he's earned their trust through the work he put in this offseason.
''We're not even worried about him,'' running back Donnell Kirkwood said. ''It could be anything, anxious, stuff like that. We're not worried about it at all.''
Any improvements the offense makes this season will be done without receiver Jamel Harbison, who Kill called ''probably our most talented offensive player.'' Harbison tore an ACL and will need knee surgery that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
''I've been hitting those throws all camp and all over the summer,'' Gray said. ''It was just anxiousness to get back out there that Thursday and we will improve it and it will show this Saturday.''
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