Gophers five things: Tale of two quarterback situations
MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team has a chance to improve to 4-0 on Saturday when the Gophers host San Jose State. Minnesota beat Western Illinois last weekend for its third win, but lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury. Coach Jerry Kill also suffered a seizure on the sideline at halftime, turning the nation’s eye to the coach’s health. All week, though, Kill has refused to talk about his latest seizure and instead turned the focus to his team and its game against the Spartans. Here are five things to watch when Minnesota and San Jose State clash at TCF Bank Stadium.
1. Mitch Leidner’s first career start?
All signs are pointing to Leidner, the redshirt freshman from Lakeville, starting Saturday’s game in place of dinged sophomore Philip Nelson. Leidner was listed as the starter on the Gophers’ depth chart released Friday. Nelson suffered a hamstring injury in last Saturday’s game against Western Illinois and did not return to action. Instead, it was Leidner taking the snaps under center. Although Leidner saw time late in Minnesota’s first two games, he did not attempt a pass in either. Last Saturday he was 7-for-8 for 105 yards and converted a big 33-yard pass play on his first collegiate attempt.
Minnesota says it has full confidence in Leidner’s ability to lead the offense this weekend if indeed Nelson can’t go — which it appears he won’t. He’s attempted just eight passes in college, so it’s hard to say if Leidner will have the same success through the air on Saturday. It also remains to be seen how much the redshirt freshman will run the ball against San Jose State. After entering the game for Nelson last weekend, Leidner carried the ball a team-high 17 times for 64 yards. Nelson, too, liked to run the ball, but the Gophers wanted to make sure he stayed healthy when doing so. He ended up injuring his hamstring on a running play. It’s safe to say Minnesota will be closely watching the number of times Leidner takes off running this weekend. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Leidner is certainly built to absorb that contact.
2. A potential first-round pick on the opposing sideline
The name David Fales may certainly not be as well-known as Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M or A.J. McCarron of Alabama, but Fales has a chance to be drafted around the same time as those two superstar quarterbacks.
Fales is in his senior season at San Jose State and is coming off an impressive junior campaign in which he led the nation in passing accuracy when he completed an astonishing 72.5 percent of his passes. His 4,193 passing yards were the sixth-most among FBS quarterbacks.
Simply put, Fales can throw. His numbers have been down a bit through his first two games in 2013, however, but Minnesota knows it will have its hands full against him. The Gophers frequently referred to Fales as a first-round draft pick; now they’re hoping to make his draft stock fall a bit on Saturday.
Fales will be without his top target Saturday, though. The San Jose Mercury News reports that wide receiver Noel Grigsby, currently the active receptions leader among all FBS players with 237 catches, did not travel to Minnesota and will not play this weekend due to an injury. His loss is a big one for the Spartans and for Fales.
3. Can the Gophers’ offense get off to a fast start?
In all three games, Minnesota’s offense has appeared sluggish for the better part of the first half. Last weekend, the Gophers entered the locker room clinging to a 7-6 lead after the offense couldn’t find a rhythm in the first half. Against New Mexico State, Minnesota trailed 13-7 in the second quarter before two touchdowns right before halftime put the Gophers in control. And in the season opener against UNLV, the offense sputtered to a 16-13 halftime lead before exploding for 35 second-half points.
Against a team like San Jose State, Minnesota’s offense can’t afford a slow start. That will fall on the quarterback — likely Leidner — and the passing game to get on the same page early, and the Gophers will need to control the clock with the ground game and keep the Spartans’ offense off the field. Minnesota believes it has the talent to put up points, but something has been lacking in the early going of the Gophers’ first three games.
“You just need that first quarter spark,” Leidner said. “Right away, instead of a three and out you’ve just got to go down and score right away. I think that’s what’s missing.”
4. Will Donnell Kirkwood get any carries?
Kirkwood began the year as Minnesota’s starting running back but suffered an ankle injury in the season opener against UNLV. He didn’t play in the Gophers’ games against New Mexico State or Western Illinois. Kirkwood is currently listed as the third-string running back behind sophomore Rodrick Williams and junior David Cobb, who have picked up the slack in Kirkwood’s absence.
Just like Minnesota is being cautious with quarterback Philip Nelson, it’s likely the Gophers will also be sure that Kirkwood is 100 percent before putting him back out there. If Kirkwood is healthy enough, there’s a chance Minnesota could give him a handful of carries as he’s eased back into the offense.
5. Another 4-0 start?
Minnesota has the chance to start its season 4-0 for the second time in as many years. After last year’s 4-0 start, though, the Gophers won just two more games the rest of the regular season to sneak into a bowl game. Earning win No. 4 on the year won’t come easy for Jerry Kill’s team, as San Jose State is coming off of an 11-1 season and a bowl game win against Bowling Green.
The Gophers’ Big Ten schedule is daunting after next week’s conference opener against Iowa, so taking care of the non-conference games is important. Don’t expect Saturday’s game to be a rout for Minnesota, however. In fact, some pundits are predicting that San Jose State will steal this game at TCF Bank Stadium. Either way, it should be a close one between the Gophers and Spartans.
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