The Gophers looked ready to make a quarterback change Saturday.
With Mitch Leidner and the offense continuing to sputter against Kent State, true freshman Demry Croft threw warm-up tosses and took practice snaps from starting center Brian Bobek in the fourth quarter.
But coach Jerry Kill never made the switch. Perhaps the lead felt too precarious to play anybody without Leidner’s experience.
The Gophers entered as 24-point favorites and played terrific defense for the third straight game. But instead of a blowout, this turned into an upset watch. The announced sellout crowd of 52,823 at TCF Bank Stadium booed multiple times, even though Minnesota survived with a 10-7 victory.
Kill doused questions about Leidner and Croft afterward, repeatedly saying, “I’m not going to make any comments on the quarterback.”
“That’s not being disrespectful or anything like that,” Kill added. “I’m not being mean or anything. It’s not fair of me to talk about anything with an individual kid. I’ll talk to you all on Tuesday after I watch the film.”
The Gophers did not make Leidner available to the media. The junior threw his first two interceptions of the season, and after a hot start to each half, he finished 17-for-27 for 184 yards and a touchdown. He also took two sacks.
He underthrew the ball on both interceptions, and drew groans and boos from the crowd when he underthrew Drew Wolitarsky on third down midway through the second quarter.
It wasn’t just Leidner. The running game went stagnant. Rodney Smith, who came in averaging 5.3 yards per carry, averaged 2.4 yards this time on 30 punishing rushes.
One of Kill’s primary concerns is the offensive line with two starters — left tackle Ben Lauer and left guard Jon Christenson — hobbled because of knee injuries.
“We didn’t handle it very well up front,” Kill said. “It all starts there.”
The Gophers rely heavily on their tight ends, and three of them were out because of injuries for this game — Lincoln Plsek (back), Duke Anyanwu (knee) and Brandon Lingen (concussion).
“We can’t make excuses about, ‘We’ve got these guys hurt and that guy hurt,’ ” Kill said. “Heck, that’s part of this deal. Physically, I thought we got it handed to us.”
The Gophers (2-1) had their hands full against Kent State (1-2), which was only two weeks removed from a 52-3 loss at Illinois.
After getting a field goal on their first drive, the Gophers got stuck in a rut, much as they did for long stretches in last week’s 23-20 overtime victory at Colorado State.
This time, the Gophers mounted a 63-yard touchdown drive before halftime. On third-and-3 from Kent State’s 14, the coaches called a well-designed play.
Split to the left, wide receiver KJ Maye went in motion into the backfield — then circled back to the left, losing a defender. Leidner hit Maye with a wide-open screen pass, and Maye waltzed in for the score.
“That was a designed play to get the guy that was guarding me lost and picked off,” Maye said. “So it was just a fake jet sweep, come back around to get the pass.”
Leidner came out strong to start the second half, threading the needle on a 32-yard pass to Wolitarsky and hitting tight end Nate Wozniak for another first down on fourth-and-2.
But when Leidner hit true freshman Rashad Still with a pass later that drive, cornerback Demetrius Monday stripped the ball, picked it up and raced 85 yards for a touchdown. Monday also had the two first-half interceptions.
After Still’s fumble, the Gophers punted on their next five drives — managing only 44 yards in that span.
Croft got loose, but Kill stuck with Leidner. With 1:18 remaining, Ryan Santoso pulled a 44-yard field goal attempt wide left. Kent State had one last chance, but third-year starting quarterback Colin Reardon took a sack and threw three incompletions.
Reardon finished 10-for-28 for 63 yards. Kent State ran only three plays in Gophers territory.
“I’ve been places where it’s been switched,” Kill said, comparing his offense and defense. “But right now we’ve got a defensive unit that believes, and they’re confident in what they do and they’re playing very well right now.
“And it’s our job, as a team. [Defensive coordinator Tracy] Claeys — he’s been on the other side of it, too, where he couldn’t stop somebody and the offense has scored. So as a staff, we’ve always picked each other up at one time or another, that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
And if the Gophers plan to try Croft or someone else at quarterback next week against Ohio, Kill isn’t saying.