Mitch Leidner getting second straight start at QB for Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time in a while, there’s some certainty at the quarterback position for Minnesota leading up to Saturday: redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner will start this weekend.

In the Gophers’ last two games, the starters were named on the day of the game. The decision was up to sophomore Philip Nelson in Minnesota’s game against Iowa as Nelson told the coaching staff his hamstring was healthy enough for him to start. Against Michigan one week later, Leidner didn’t find out he was starting until the day of the game.

On Tuesday, acting head coach Tracy Claeys said Leidner will get the start this Saturday against Northwestern.

“Obviously Mitch made some mistakes you’d like to have back, but we feel like he played well enough,” Claeys said of the Michigan game. “They moved the ball on offense that he deserved that opportunity again. The only thing I shared with the offense is that Philip will be ready to play. I’d like to get him in the game at some time.”

Minnesota has lacked both consistency and production at the quarterback position all year. The Gophers rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards, averaging just 116.8 yards per game. Leidner earned his second career start against Michigan on Oct. 5. While Minnesota lost that game 41-13, Leidner did have some success moving the ball against the Wolverines, especially in the first half. He finished 14-for-21 for 145 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Those passing numbers were markedly better than Leidner had in his first career start against San Jose State when he was 5-for-12 for 71 yards. But he did rush for four touchdowns in that victory, tying a school record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a game. 

“It’s fun to watch him run,” said center Jon Christenson. “He’s a big guy and plows over guys, so as an O-lineman, just to see that, you’re blocking a guy and out of the corner of your eye you see him truck another defender. It’s a lot of fun to see that.”

At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, Leidner is a bit more physical than the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Nelson. Other than Leidner being slightly more physical and a bit tougher to tackle, Minnesota’s players say there’s not a big difference between the two.

“I have confidence in both of them,” said tight end Maxx Williams. “Both of them are great quarterbacks. Both of them can make the plays, so I don’t think it really matters who’s in the game for us”

Nelson began the year as the starter after making seven starts as a true freshman last year. But he suffered a hamstring injury in Minnesota’s win against Western Illinois and gave way to Leidner the following week against San Jose State. 

The Gophers then switched back to Nelson as the starter for the game against Iowa, during which Nelson was 12-for-24 for 135 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. The following week, it was back to Leidner as the starter against Michigan.

For the first time in several weeks, there will finally be some consistency at the position with Leidner getting his second consecutive start. Leidner has been the more accurate of the two passers, too, completing 63.4 percent of his attempts compared to Nelson’s 50.8 percent completion rate.

“Mitch is definitely a confident guy going into the game,” Christenson said. “Whether it’s Phil or Mitch or whoever, we’re always confident going in because both those guys are great quarterbacks, and I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do this weekend.”

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