Gophers report card: Defense makes statement in win

Gophers defensive back Daletavious McGhee (8) and teammates celebrate their win against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t flawless, but Minnesota’s 42-20 victory over FCS school Eastern Illinois was still convincing. The Gophers defense pitched a shutout for three and a half quarters before the Panthers finally scored. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s offense got rolling after a slow start to the game. All in all, there were plenty of positives for the Gophers in the 2014 season opener Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Running offense: B+

Minnesota said it would mix in four different running backs, and that’s exactly what happened — to varying degrees of success. Starting running back David Cobb got the bulk of the carries, rushing 14 times for 78 yards. But he was never able to break off a big gain, as his longest rush of the night went for just 13 yards. Meanwhile, backup Rodrick William Jr. had 21 yards on six carries, while Donnell Kirkwood only carried the ball twice for no gain. The most promising rushing performance of the night came from redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who was playing in his first college game. The speedy back had just four carries but racked up 60 yards. That included a 42-yard touchdown scamper around the left edge, his second score of the night. Quarterback Mitch Leidner didn’t run often but did find the end zone twice with his legs.

Passing offense: C

This was Leidner’s first game as the team’s unquestioned starting quarterback, and his season debut had mixed results. Leidner had just two passing yards through the first quarter but bumped that total up to 100 by halftime. His best pass of the night was a 35-yard dart to sophomore Donovahn Jones, who spun away from coverage and sprinted to the end zone to put the Gophers up 14-0 before halftime. Leidner also found tight end Maxx Williams twice for 57 yards; one of those catches included an impressive hurdle by Williams over a Panthers defender. Still, Leidner will need to target Williams more in upcoming games. Minnesota was without one of its top wide receivers as Drew Wolitarsky missed the game with an injury. Leidner did target Isaac Fruechte a few times, but no other receiver besides Jones had a catch.

Gophers 42, Panthers 20

Running defense: A

Minnesota’s defensive line was banged up throughout the game, as several linemen left with injuries. Despite that, the Gophers had little problem stopping the rush. The only player who effectively gained yards against Minnesota on Thursday was Panthers quarterback Jalen Whitlow, who rushed 19 times for 77 yards (4.1 yards per carry). His biggest run of the night went for 19 yards, but he never was able to fully break loose of the Gophers’ defensive grasp. Meanwhile, Eastern Illinois’ running backs had little to no success rushing against Minnesota. Shepard Little gained just 16 yards on three carries, while Taylor Duncan ran four times for 13 yards. The Gophers made it tough for the Panthers to pick up big chunks of yards on the ground, as they finished with only 99 rushing yards in the game.

Passing defense: B

One look at the final box score will show that the Gophers allowed 310 passing yards in Thursday’s win, but that doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Minnesota held Eastern Illinois to just 81 passing yards at halftime on 10-of-19 passing between Whitlow and backup Andrew Manley. By the end of the third quarter, the Panthers had 162 passing yards, meaning nearly half of their total yards through the air came in the fourth quarter during garbage time — when most of Minnesota’s starters on defense had already been taken out of the game. Safety Antonio Johnson had the Gophers defense’s lone interception as he stepped in front of a Whitlow pass late in the third quarter. Cornerback Eric Murray also had a solid game and showed once again why he’s viewed as Minnesota’s top cover man.

Special teams: A

It’s hard to find any flaws in the special teams in the Gophers’ first game. Peter Mortell, who emerged last year as one of the Big Ten’s better punters, averaged a whopping 51.2 yards on his five punts, two of which were downed inside the 20-yard line. Minnesota didn’t attempt a field goal Thursday, but redshirt freshman kicker Ryan Santoso was a perfect 6-for-6 on extra points in his first career game. Santoso also showcased his big leg as five of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks. But the play of the night on special teams came early in the third quarter when Murray blocked an Eastern Illinois punt deep in Panthers territory, and Logan Hutton recovered it and ran it in two yards for a touchdown.

Overall: B

Though Minnesota was far from perfect Thursday, there was plenty to like from the Gophers in their convincing victory — especially on defense. It was expected that Minnesota’s defense was ahead of the offense, just as it was for most of the 2013 season. After threatening to post the first shutout by a Gophers team since 2006, Minnesota’s defense indeed made a statement. The big question remains the passing game. Leidner had his moments Thursday, but he and the rest of the offense didn’t exactly do enough to instill comfort among fans that this passing attack is much-improved from a year ago. The key for Minnesota between now and next Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee State is to get healthy. The Gophers lost three defensive linemen in Thursday’s game, and also could use a healthy Wolitarsky to boost the offense. Regardless, year four of coach Jerry Kill’s tenure at Minnesota started out on the right foot with a win.

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