MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers played the second half without head coach Jerry Kill on the sidelines. They also played most of the game without their starting quarterback on the field.
Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson left Saturday’s game early in the second quarter with a right hamstring injury and did not return. With Nelson dinged up, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stepped up big. Leidner was an effective 7-for-8 for 105 yards through the air. He also did work with his legs, rushing 17 times for 64 yards in Minnesota’s 29-12 victory over visiting Western Illinois.
“It did feel really good to get out there with the guys,” Leidner said. “We started off a little slow, but towards the end there it started picking up.”
After taking a redshirt year last season, Leidner appeared in Minnesota’s first two games this season, seeing the field in garbage time. He had just five total carries for 36 yards and a touchdown but had yet to attempt a pass entering Saturday’s game against the Leathernecks.
Leidner’s first career pass attempt Saturday was an impressive one. He hit tight end Maxx Williams, another redshirt freshman, for a 33-yard strike down the field. Williams stiff-armed a Western Illinois defender to extend the play and gain a few more yards on the catch.
That completion not only set up a Gophers touchdown a few plays later, but it also helped Leidner calm the nerves in his first extended playing time of his college career.
“The coaches, we prepared for that play a lot this week,” Leidner said. “I just went through the progression there and it was wide open there like we thought it would be.”
After the big 33-yard completion, Leidner ran the ball six consecutive times to help set up a 1st-and-goal situation for the Gophers. Running back Rodrick Williams punched it in for the touchdown, but it was Leidner who put Minnesota in position for the easy score.
Minnesota entered the game with a subpar passing game. The Gophers were 112th in the nation in passing offense, averaging just 113 yards per game. That number didn’t improve much as Leidner (105 yards) and Nelson (19 yards) combined for just 124 yards through the air.
Still, Leidner was effective despite a limited number of attempts. He found fullback Mike Henry for a 15-yard gain in the third quarter and later connected with wide receiver Derrick Engel over the middle for 17 yards as Western Illinois’ defense was closing in on Leidner.
Leidner’s total yardage may not jump out of the box score, but he rallied the Gophers from an early 6-0 deficit and kept things steady en route to the 17-point win.
“When you get in a tough situation like that with the game still in the balance and you’ve got to put in your second quarterback, I mean, wow, what a performance he made,” said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who served as the active coach after Jerry Kill left at halftime following an on-field seizure. “I can tell you this. Every coach on the defensive staff has a tremendous amount of respect for him because he’s a great competitor. I think he showed that. Things were struggling, and he took over the game and made the plays he had to make.”
Leidner’s only real blunder came in the third quarter when the redshirt freshman fumbled near the goal line. Western Illinois recovered the fumble but eventually was forced to punt, so the fumble ultimately didn’t cost the Gophers — although it could have potentially been a big swing in momentum in favor of the Leathernecks.
Nelson and Leidner were both part of the same recruiting class and both grew up in the state of Minnesota. When Nelson was thrust into the starting role midseason last year as a true freshman, the Gophers kept the redshirt on Leidner.
The former Lakeville South standout was rated by Scout.com as a three-star recruit. After arriving on campus, Leidner had a year to learn during his redshirt season and has since taken second-team reps in practice this year.
On Saturday, however, he led the Gophers as if he was the team’s top signal caller.
“The kid loves football,” Claeys said. “It ain’t about recruiting and stars. When you start to get kids who want to be here and love being here, that’s when you start to win.”
Some may cry out that the Gophers have a quarterback controversy, but it still appears as if Nelson is Minnesota’s top quarterback. With Nelson’s health in question for next week’s game against San Jose State, however, Leidner knows he has to be ready for whatever comes his way.
“I just want to continue to improve and get better and keep leading the team and just keep winning,” Leidner said. “It’s nothing too special. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”