When USC coach Lane Kiffin was asked who from his coaching past most resembled Gophers' receiver-turned-quarterback MarQueis Gray, Kiffin thought back to New Year's Day 2006.
Former Texas signal-caller/scrambler Vince Young tormented the Trojans in the Rose Bowl that day, to the tune of a 467-yard game.
"I watched one run up and down the field [against] us and cost us our third straight national championship last time we were here, in Vince Young," Kiffin said. "A smooth athlete like this that could really run and make people miss, and even when we were there he was so hard to bring down.
"That was a nightmare for us back then. Preparation for Saturday has been similar to that."
Gray has very little experience at quarterback and even less experience in Gophers' coach Jerry Kill's system, so he's not really a Young clone. Rather, he was a receiver the last two years under former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, where he hurt USC with 98 yards and a touchdown through the air.
"It’s very scary for us," Kiffin said. "Here’s a guy that people had a hard time handling when he was getting the ball six or seven times a game and now he’s touching the ball on every snap. We’ve got our hands full. This is a big-time challenge for our defense."
Now, the 6-4, 240-pound Gray will lead Kill's fast-tempo, quarterback-friendly offense to Los Angeles and attempt to do what many other running quarterbacks have done to the Trojans over the years.
Monte Kiffin's defense, regardless of how different and simplified this year's version is, isn't meant to stop quick quarterbacks who run the ball. But that's exactly what Gray will be doing this Saturday, especially since his No. 2 receiver will be a new player, juco transfer Malcolm Moulton.
“This is not just a mobile quarterback but a big, physical one," Kiffin said. "They say he’s 240 pounds. We’re going to have our hands full, especially because they know what they’re doing with him.”
For evidence, take a look at Northern Illinois' senior quarterback, Chandler Harnish. Last year, as a junior in his third year in Kill's system, Harnish ran the ball 137 times and accumulated 836 yards. Taking out sacks on pass plays, Harnish gained more than 900 yards on the ground alone, a large amount compared to the 2,530 yards he earned through the air.
Gray's ratio might be even more run-favored Saturday.
Another note on the Gophers, who we looked at in detail here: Kill has his entire starting lineup already made up for Saturday's opener, save for one spot, center, where the presumptive starter has been hurt the past two weeks. USC's depth chart, released Sunday, had 11 of 22 positions still undecided -- half the team.
That almost flips the notion that Minnesota will still be figuring things out under Kill. The Gophers will be incorporating a new coach, sure, but they also have all their assignments already set up and figured out.