5 things: Gophers find quarterback-tight end chemistry in loss

Despite hanging around and trailing by just seven at the half, the Gophers football team let Michigan run away in the second half as Minnesota fell 42-13 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. For the sixth time in a row, the Wolverines will keep the Little Brown Jug, awarded to the winner of this longtime rivalry. The Gophers are now 4-2 overall and 0-2 to start the Big Ten schedule as they enter a bye week. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game between Minnesota and Michigan.

1. Mitch Leidner is Minnesota’s quarterback moving forward.

After rushing for four touchdowns two weeks ago against San Jose State, Leidner didn’t play at all in last weekend’s loss to Iowa. Instead, the Gophers started sophomore Philip Nelson at quarterback, a move that didn’t pan out. Against Michigan on Saturday it was the redshirt freshman Leidner getting his second career start — and his first in the Big Ten.

Leidner had a short-term memory early on. He fumbled on Minnesota’s first possession and turned the ball over, which led to a Michigan touchdown six plays later. On the Gophers’ next drive, though, Leidner led Minnesota on a 16-play, 75-yard scoring drive that was capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams. Leidner was a perfect 5-for-5 in the first quarter as Minnesota’s offense finally had success moving the ball.

While Leidner finished the game 14-for-21 for 145 yards, a touchdown and an interception that was returned for a touchdown, it’s evident he looked more comfortable under center than Nelson did a week ago. And Leidner had a much better game Saturday than he did in his only other start against San Jose State when he completed just five passes. Minnesota has a bye week upcoming, which will allow a dinged-up Nelson to recover from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the San Jose State game. Still, even if Nelson is healthy, Leidner made a strong case Saturday to be the Gophers’ starting quarterback from here on out.

2. Even an inaccurate Devin Gardner was good enough to beat the Gophers.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner got his first start of the year last season against Minnesota and orchestrated a Wolverines victory at TCF Bank Stadium. But Gardner entered Saturday’s game with less-than-stellar numbers in four nonconference wins. He threw eight total interceptions, including three in one game against UConn. Minnesota saw a vulnerable quarterback, and one who struggled with his accuracy.

Gardner was indeed inaccurate Saturday, often times throwing behind his receivers or missing the open man. Still, he finished the game 13-for-17 for 235 yards and a touchdown. Gardner made a few big plays with his arm when he had to, including a 24-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess to take a 14-7 lead and another big pass to Funchess on 3rd-and-long to give the Wolverines a 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line. That duo connected for another big pass on 3rd-and-long late in the fourth quarter to extend Michigan’s drive and keep the clock running. Gardner wasn’t sharp, but his receivers certainly bailed him out. Michigan’s passing attack seemed to wear down the Gophers’ secondary in the second half.

3. Maxx Williams emerged as a weapon on offense.

Williams, a redshirt freshman tight end from Waconia, Minn., has good size for a tight end (6-foot-4, 254 pounds). Entering Saturday’s game, he had just five total catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, but he didn’t catch a pass in each of the Gophers’ last two games. He broke out in a big way Saturday, grabbing a team-high five passes for 54 yards and the 7-yard touchdown pass from Leidner in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-all.

Williams and Leidner are roommates, and that chemistry was evident Saturday as the Gophers quarterback looked Williams’ way often. Williams made a nice play on a 16-yard catch from Leidner in which he used his size to block out the defender. Michigan seemed to have a tough time matching up with Williams and the Gophers took advantage. Moving forward, Williams could certainly be a go-to target for Leidner in the passing game.

4. No real hangover effect from the Iowa loss.

Minnesota was outplayed in just about every facet of the game in last Saturday’s loss to rival Iowa. After starting the year 4-0, the loss was a step backward for a program that appeared to be moving in the right direction. And given the nature of how the Gophers lost to the Hawkeyes, there was certainly a chance that the disappointment could carry over into Saturday’s game against Michigan.

Instead, the Gophers seemed to have put the Iowa game in the past and actually remained competitive with Michigan for the first half. Minnesota was able to establish a running game against the Wolverines (mostly via Leidner’s legs), something it failed to do against Iowa as the Gophers rushed for just 30 yards last weekend. Minnesota won the battle in the trenches on defense, too, at least for a while. Michigan gained just 113 rushing yards. And the Gophers controlled the time of possession in the first half, 18:54 to 11:06.

With a new quarterback under center, Minnesota played inspired football for 30 minutes. Ultimately, though, Michigan proved to be too much for Minnesota in the second half. But it was clear that the loss to Iowa didn’t affect the way the Gophers played in Saturday’s loss.

5. Questions about Jerry Kill’s health will once again resurface.

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was not in Ann Arbor for Saturday’s game. The school announced that Kill was not feeling well Friday and was planning on traveling to Michigan on Saturday morning. However, the third-year Gophers coach — who is epileptic — suffered another seizure and remained in Minneapolis. It was his fifth documented game-day seizure since he took over the program, and the second this season. He suffered a seizure at halftime of Minnesota’s game against Western Illinois and missed the second half.

But this seizure was different in that it forced Kill to miss an entire game for the first time in his career. There were already many people who felt Kill’s inability to stay on the field for two quarters was an issue. Now that he missed the entirety of his team’s game at Michigan, more questions will surely be raised this week. Kill hates talking about his health and has downplayed his seizures while at the same time becoming more open about his epilepsy.

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