The stadium lights beckoned, the band played loud, and the students in gold T-shirts stood shoulder to shoulder, ready for a new season.
College football was back Thursday night, and the Gophers were clearly amped for Eastern Illinois.
Maybe too amped.
Berkley Edwards dropped Mitch Leidner’s first pass, and Leidner struggled finding his touch. But the Gophers defense spent the whole night making big plays, especially Eric Murray’s blocked punt and Logan Hutton’s recovery for a touchdown early in the second half.
As soon as Leidner found his rhythm, the Gophers pulled away for a 42-20 victory.
An announced crowd of 44,344 watched the Gophers overcome a slow start and build a 35-0 lead before the Panthers added three late touchdowns, including one on the game’s final play.
“The score doesn’t really indicate how well the defense played,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.
The lopsided victory was just what the Gophers needed against a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA). They will have nine days to learn from the film before playing Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 6.
Leidner completed nine of 17 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown, and rushed for two more scores of 2 and 5 yards in his fifth career start.
The five-touchdown lead allowed the Gophers to give young players an extended look. Leidner’s backup, Chris Streveler, made his college debut, and Edwards rushed for two touchdowns — a 1-yarder and a 42-yarder with two minutes remaining that rewarded the fans who stayed until the end.
“We had a lot of good things that happened out there,” Kill said. “We had a few things that we certainly need to improve on.”
Leidner is a sophomore who shared time at quarterback with Philip Nelson last year, never quite knowing when a bad play might get him benched. Now, with Nelson gone, the job is all Leidner’s, but the Gophers saw him pressing too hard at times during training camp.
That seemed to be the case early, as the Gophers punted twice and lost the ball on a Leidner fumble.
“Definitely a lot of nerves,” Leidner said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment and then having a night game as well. But I was able to get through it and execute better.”
Eastern Illinois sabotaged itself early with two botched snaps in the shotgun formation. The first one halted an impressive first drive with a 17-yard loss. The second one was fumbled by quarterback Jalen Whitlow and recovered by Alex Keith at the Panthers 5-yard line.
Leidner made it hurt. On third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, he couldn’t find anyone open, so he scrambled left for a touchdown.
Two drives later, Leidner rolled out and hit tight end Maxx Williams, who hurdled a defender for a 25-yard gain. Leidner went 4-for-4 on that drive, eventually hitting sophomore Donovahn Jones for a 35-yard touchdown.
“He’s a whole different kid,” Leidner said of Jones, who had three receptions for 57 yards. “He’s matured a lot since last season. He’s out there, and he’s hungry. He wants to get the ball, and he wants to score touchdowns.”
Kill seemed equally impressed with Leidner’s ability to gather himself.
“I think he just settled in,” Kill said. “You’ve got to understand that everybody wants [immediate consistency]. That’s not going to happen. It didn’t happen to that young man [quarterback Connor Cook] from Michigan State either last year. And I’d say he played pretty good throughout the season.”
Kill noted how challenging it was for Leidner early with the Panthers blitzing on almost every play.
“I can tell you this, he saw more blitz and more things than he’ll see in a lifetime,” Kill said. “They pretty much did it the whole first half. And in the second half, I think we found some things that we can do with the football.”
The Gophers led 14-0 at halftime, and the blocked punt/touchdown opened the floodgates.
Leidner made it 28-0 when he scrambled for a 5-yard score early in the fourth quarter. On that play, Leidner put his head down and dived through multiple defenders for the goal line. Leidner never shied away from contact last year, but the Gophers will hold their breath on those plays this year, knowing how unproven Streveler is behind him.
“[Leidner] stayed low,” Kill said. “As long as you don’t stand up, take shots, you’re a lot better off. A quarterback’s always going to have to take care of himself, I don’t care if it’s the National Football League or what. But I thought he played much lower than he did a year ago.”