MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team has established an identity through the first four weeks as a team that likes to run the ball early and often and grind out yards on the ground. A strong running game has resulted in a 4-0 start.
The aerial attack, however, has left something to be desired.
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Minnesota has averaged just 105.2 passing yards per game so far this season, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten. In fact, it’s almost the fewest in all of college football. Only five FBS teams have passed for fewer yards per game than the Gophers, who have just one passing touchdown in four games.
Undefeated Minnesota doesn’t seem too concerned about its lack of a passing game, though. At least not yet.
“The only thing that matters to me is if we get the W,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner. “I could care less about stats.”
Leidner earned his first career start last week in place of injured sophomore Philip Nelson. The two quarterbacks have both done more damage with their feet than their arms. Last weekend against San Jose State, Leidner had nearly as many rushing touchdowns (four) as he had pass completions (five). His 151 rushing yards more than doubled his output through the air (71 yards).
Now that the Big Ten season is here, Minnesota’s passing game will need to step up. Teams like Iowa, whom the Gophers face this Saturday, will no doubt be keying on the rushing attack. The Hawkeyes have allowed less than 100 yards per game on the ground this year.
If Minnesota can’t move the chains on the ground Saturday, Leidner or Nelson (the starter remains a question mark) will have to pick their spots through the air.
“You’ve got to take what the defense gives us,” said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. “I think if we get into the Big Ten you’re going to see a lot more Cover 1. You’ll see some different looks than maybe we’ve seen so far. I think the big thing is having an efficient passing game and be accurate and efficient and make plays when you need to.”
In his two games of extended time this year, Leidner has completed 60 percent of his passes. But he was just 5-for-12 against San Jose State after going 7-for-8 in relief of Nelson against Western Illinois. Leidner’s biggest pass play last Saturday came on a third-down throw to KJ Maye over the middle for a 37-yard gain. He also hit Isaac Fruechte for a 22-yard completion later in the game, but Leidner’s other three completions went for a combined 12 yards.
Minnesota’s only passing touchdown came in the season opener against UNLV when Nelson found tight end Maxx Williams in the end zone for a 10-yard score. By comparison, the two Gophers quarterbacks have rushed for eight total touchdowns while combining to throw for just that one. Minnesota’s last 15 touchdowns have come on the ground.
For someone who was a pocket passer in a pro-style offense in high school, Leidner has had to adapt to Minnesota’s run-first mentality. He claims his longest run as a high school quarterback was 15 yards, a number he’s already surpassed.
Since he’s had success through the air in the past, Leidner believes he can help the Gophers with his arm, too.
“I feel comfortable passing the football,” he said. “I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve got good receivers that can catch the ball.”
Only three Gophers have more than three receptions through the first four games. Derrick Engel leads the team with seven catches, while Maye has six and Williams has five for a team-high 99 yards. Having to adjust to a new quarterback three games in hasn’t exactly aided the offense’s ability to find a rhythm, but the players say they have just as much confidence in Leidner as they do in Nelson.
One positive of Minnesota’s passing game? The Gophers have just two interceptions through four games. Winning the turnover battle has been a key to their 4-0 start. The Hawkeyes picked off Minnesota three times last year in Iowa City and the result was a 31-13 Iowa win.
Even if the Gophers don’t put up big yardage in the passing game Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, they hope to at least avoid throwing passes to the wrong team.
“You’re only as good as your last game, so we’ll see if we don’t force passes and do all the right things in game five,” Kill said. “That will be the key to the game. Last year we had four or maybe five turnovers. If we have that we’ll have the same result.”