Starting in place of the dinged-up Philip Nelson, Minnesota redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner put on one heck of a performance against San Jose State. Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns to propel the Gophers to a 43-24 win and a 4-0 start.
Even with Leidner’s impressive outing, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said Nelson will be the team’s starter as long as he’s healthy. Nelson suffered a hamstring injury last week against Western Illinois and was replaced by Leidner for the rest of the game.
Leidner took advantage Saturday by shining in his first career start Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, leaving the Gophers with a few options at quarterback next week against Iowa.
“I think right now, we’re going to enjoy this thing. Philip’s our starting quarterback if he’s 100 percent,” Kill said after Saturday’s win. “We’re in about as good a situation as you could be in right now at that position. That’s all a plus.”
Leidner joined all sorts of elite company in Saturday’s win with his rushing performance. He became just the eighth player in team history to rush for four touchdowns in a game and the first Gopher to do so since Marion Barber III in 2003. Leidner was also just the second Minnesota quarterback to score four rushing touchdowns; Curtis Wilson also did so in 1967 against Indiana.
When he starred at Lakeville (Minn.) South High School, Leidner was part of a pro-style offense, meaning he ran very little as the quarterback. Earlier this week, he estimated his longest run as a high school quarterback was 15 yards. He passed for 1,872 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior to earn all-conference honors.
So far at Minnesota, Leidner hasn’t needed to use his arm to do damage. Saturday, he used his legs — something he didn’t exactly envision during his days at Lakeville.
“I never really thought of that. I thought I was going to be a passer,” Leidner said. “It’s fun running the ball, that’s for sure.”
When Leidner did run the ball, he wasn’t afraid to deliver a hit to the defenders coming at him. At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, Leidner possesses good size for a quarterback. On many of his game-high 24 rushes, Leidner lowered a shoulder or moved a pile of would-be tacklers to gain an extra yard or two on the play.
Still, you have to wonder if his body can continue to withstand the hits at the rate he was receiving them Saturday. But Kill said he has no problem with Leidner’s running style when asked if he’d prefer to see Leidner slide rather than initiate contact.
“That’s not who he is,” Kill said. “I think you’ve got to play smart, but you can’t change a kid. The other part of it is you’ve got to get the extra yard, so you’ve got to have some depth. We’re fortunate we have a little depth right now. That’s just a little bit of the way you do it. Sometimes when you slide you get hurt more than you do when you play aggressively.”
Leidner’s first of four touchdowns came in the first quarter as he put the Gophers on the board with a 10-yard scamper. Earlier in that drive he had runs of 23 and 16 yards to help Minnesota move the chains on the ground.
Each of Leidner’s next three touchdowns came from just one yard out but they counted just the same as his 10-yard score. He snuck the ball in from the 1-yard line to put Minnesota up 13-3 midway through the second quarter. Leidner’s third score of the game came early in the third quarter and came three players after the Gophers intercepted San Jose State quarterback David Fales. That interception and Leidner’s ensuing touchdown helped turn the tide of the game as Minnesota took a 20-10 lead and gained plenty of momentum.
Just for good measure, Leidner added his fourth rushing touchdown of the day early in the fourth quarter to give Minnesota a comfortable 36-17 lead.
“He just doesn’t back down from anybody,” Kill said of Leidner. “A physical kid. But I will say this. All three of our quarterbacks are all ready to play. They’re all that way, physical. He’s a pretty big kid. I like more about what he did at the line of scrimmage. … Overall, you ask the kid to do what he did, we’re very proud of him.”
Still, the passing game was lacking for Minnesota for the fourth time this season. Leidner didn’t need to do much with his arm but he finished the game just 5-for-12 for 71 yards. But it was hard to ignore what Leidner was able to do with his feet and his ability to move the Gophers’ offense down the field.
Now the question remains: how much will Leidner see the field next Saturday against Iowa if Nelson is indeed healthy? Leidner isn’t worried about that just yet. He’s still basking in his first win as a college starter.
“My mindset going into next week is pretty much the same as it’s always been,” Leidner said. “Just prepare, work hard and just (keep) doing what we’re doing. We’re on the right track and we’re doing good things. We’ve just got to keep working hard.”