On the first series of his senior season, Mitch Leidner handed the ball off three consecutive times followed by a punt. Where’s the fun in that?
That didn’t look like a new, more diversified offense.
His first pass sailed over his receiver’s head out of bounds, no chance at being caught. That didn’t look different, either.
Ultimately, Leidner saved the Gophers’ bacon largely with his tough running.
Now that looked familiar.
The first look-see at the Gophers new offense under coordinator Jay Johnson on Thursday night showed that this remake will be a work in progress, not something that’s fixed with a snap of the fingers.
Mistakes and sloppy play came early before Leidner used his feet to help the Gophers avoid a disastrous start with a 30-23 victory over Oregon State at TCF Bank Stadium.
Leidner passed for only 130 yards and no touchdowns, but he ran for 76 yards and two TDs on 13 carries.
Same old, same old.
Season openers in college football tend to be error-filled calamities. The Gophers have plenty to digest and correct after watching mistakes pile up by the bushel.
The offense was missing its two best playmakers in running back Shannon Brooks and tight end Brandon Lingen, but that’s no excuse for the number of self-inflicted mistakes that nearly sabotaged the opener.
The Gophers committed three false-start penalties and an illegal formation penalty, and center Tyler Moore whistled a snap over Leidner’s head, resulting in a 23-yard loss on first down.
All before halftime.
In the second half, Moore snapped another ball over Leidner’s head into the end zone for a safety.
Leidner received a lot of attention this summer because he’s finally healthy, slimmer and a senior with loads of experience.
He didn’t look much different than the guy we’ve seen the past few seasons. He was inconsistent throwing the ball and effective as a runner.
The game plan looked fairly conservative, too. Nearly twice as many runs as passes.
Johnson’s best play call came with three minutes left in the game. On third-and-6, Johnson created misdirection by sending several receivers flowing to the left. Drew Wolitarsky worked back to the right and found himself all alone for a first-down catch. That was a creative call at the right moment.
The offense struggled to get anything going until a pair of lightning strikes by true freshman defensive Tai’yon Devers, who forced two fumbles on two sacks.
Those takeaways gave the Gophers ideal field position, which was fortunate because nothing was happening until then.
Let’s not forget that Oregon State had eight new starters on a defense that last season ranked 116th in total defense.
But give the Gophers offense credit, Leidner in particular, for making enough plays with the game undecided.
For whatever reason, Leidner seems to settle in once he gets a few carries and takes some hard licks. That was the case again late in the third quarter when he gave the offense a spark with his feet.
With the Gophers trailing 23-17, Leidner led the offense on an 80-yard drive by rushing for 37 yards on five carries.
He had a 17-yard run on third-and-10. Then, on third-and-9 from the Oregon State 14, Leidner broke the pocket and pump-faked, which caused a defender to jump in the air. That gave Leidner enough clearance to run 10 yards for the first down.
His inconsistency as a passer remains a problem. He completed only 13 of 26 passes and didn’t reach 100 yards until late in the game.
The thing with Leidner is when he misses, he tends to miss wildly.
On one play in the third quarter, he overthrew one receiver and underthrew a different receiver in the same vicinity. Not sure which one was the intended target.
Ultimately, Leidner showed his toughness as runner and competitor late to pull his team to victory. That’s what counts on a night when plenty of things went awry.