If Mitch Leidner looked nervous Thursday, it’s because he was.
The Gophers’ redshirt sophomore quarterback has been in this situation before, starting a college football game in front of tens of thousands of fans. So it’s not that the experience was entirely new to him.
What was different about Thursday’s game against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium, though, was that it was Leidner’s first start as the undisputed No. 1 quarterback at Minnesota. When he played last year as a redshirt freshman, he split time with then-sophomore Philip Nelson. But ever since Nelson left the program this past offseason, the keys to the offense were firmly in Leidner’s hands.
Leidner was shaky initially in his season debut, a 42-20 Gophers victory, but the Lakeville, Minn., native eventually settled into somewhat of a rhythm later in the night. After passing for just two yards in the first quarter on 1-of-4 passing, something finally clicked for Leidner. He finished the half with 100 passing yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Donovahn Jones.
By the end of the game, Leidner was 9-of-17 for 144 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Strangely enough, Leidner said it was his feet that helped get his arm in gear Thursday.
"Getting my legs moving a little bit, having a little contact, that’s always a big thing that gets me into the game," Leidner said. "There were definitely a lot of nerves. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment."
Leidner wasn’t afraid to take off and run last year, but Minnesota wants to keep him healthy. So he’s been encouraged to run less to avoid getting hit too much, and he wound up with seven carries Thursday — two of which ended with him in the end zone.
Still, the Gophers are looking to improve a passing offense that ranked last in the Big Ten a year ago. Leidner was without one of his top targets in sophomore wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who didn’t play due to an injury. Leidner did find Jones three times for 57 yards, and tight end Maxx Williams had a pair of catches for 57 yards — including a 32-yard grab that showcased Williams’ athleticism when he hurdled a Panthers defender.
"It was a pretty great play to see him jump over that guy," Leidner said. "Hats off to Maxx. He’s a great player. A great guy to have on the offense, that’s for sure."
Defensive line dinged up: Minnesota defensive end Michael Amaefula didn’t play Thursday with an undisclosed injury, and the health of Minnesota’s defensive line only went downhill once the game started.
In the first quarter, defensive tackle Scott Ekpe suffered an injury that kept him out the rest of the game. Yoshoub Timms was also hurt in the first quarter and had to be helped as he slowly limped to the sideline. And Alex Keith, who recovered two fumbles in the first half, left with a reported knee injury and did not return.
The rest of Minnesota’s roster stayed relatively healthy in Thursday’s win, but the defensive line is now looking a bit thin after it was ravaged by injuries.
"I’m concerned," Kill said. "Nobody has a ton of depth now, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a concern. Just put the next one in. That’s all you can do. . . . A lot of young guys. But it certainly makes you a little nervous right now."
With several upperclassmen out on the defensive line, it forced the Gophers to play some inexperienced players Thursday. That included true freshman Stephen Richardson (who was expected to contribute this year anyway), converted tight end Gaelin Elmore, and Owatonna, Minn., native Andrew Stelter.
"We had three freshmen playing a ton of football," Kill said. "We’ve certainly got to get some guys healed up."
Kill didn’t have any updates on any of the players injured Thursday, but he did say that Amaefula will return for next weekend’s game against Middle Tennessee State.
Edwards shines in debut: Gophers fans had heard all the hype about the speedy running back with NFL bloodlines. They finally got to see him in action on Thursday.
Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, the younger brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards, played his first college game and saw plenty of action in the second half of Minnesota’s rout. Edwards scored his first collegiate touchdown with a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter to put the Gophers up 35-0.
But that was far from Edwards’ most impressive play of the night. With Minnesota up big, Edwards turned a corner around the left edge and took off down the sideline, scampering in for a 42-yard touchdown. The speed that had been touted finally came to life on the field in impressive fashion and put the Gophers up 42-7 with 2:05 remaining in the game.
"He’s lightning in a bottle," Kill said. "He can flat run. I don’t know what else you can say. We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him the ball."