Gophers football coach Jerry Kill pumped his fist in appreciation Saturday, as the student section serenaded him with chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”
One week after suffering a seizure at halftime against Western Illinois, Kill got treated to the best half of football his team has played all season.
The defense came up with an answer for prolific San Jose State quarterback David Fales, and the offense kept churning up rushing yards and chewing up the clock in a 43-24 Gophers victory over the Spartans at TCF Bank Stadium.
In his first career start, Mitch Leidner carried the ball 24 times for 151 yards and four touchdowns — the most rushing touchdowns for a Gophers quarterback since Curtis Wilson had four against Indiana in 1967.
An announced crowd of 45,647 watched the Gophers pass their toughest test of the nonconference schedule, improving to 4-0 heading into next weekend’s Big Ten opener vs. Iowa.
“The good thing about today is it’ll be easy for you [sportswriters],” Kill said, referencing the bulletins over last week’s seizure. “You’ve got something good to write about.”
The Gophers were 4-0 last season when they went to Iowa and got humbled in a 31-13 defeat. But the season’s first four weeks — including lopsided victories over UNLV, New Mexico State and Western Illinois — have given the Gophers hope that this year will be different.
“It’s a new year,” senior linebacker Aaron Hill said. “Our big thing is just laying one brick at a time, and every game is a new brick, every practice is a new brick. We’re just trying to build that foundation that Coach Kill is trying to build here.”
With Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman among the NFL officials in attendance, Fales showed why he is viewed as a potential first-round draft pick. He passed for 294 yards and two touchdowns — just in the first half.
The Gophers led 20-17 at halftime and knew they needed an answer for Fales.
“We had to get him out of a rhythm,” Kill said. “I don’t think you ever know how good a kid is until you play him. Believe me, we’ve seen some good quarterbacks over my 30 years. I’ve coached against [Joe] Flacco and all the guys in the Big Ten, and this kid can play.”
On San Jose State’s first possession of the second half, Gophers cornerback Jeremy Baltazar tipped a pass from Fales, and Hill corralled it for an interception, returning it to the Spartans 12-yard line.
Leidner turned that into one of his three 1-yard touchdown sneaks.
San Jose State’s first three second-half possessions went: interception, three-and-out, three-and-out. The Gophers got a 22-yard field goal from Chris Hawthorne and another 1-yard touchdown sneak from Leidner to take a 36-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
By game’s end, Fales had completed 22 of 35 passes for 439 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The 6-4, 230-pound Leidner had a much different game subbing for Philip Nelson, who was out because of a right hamstring injury. Leidner completed only five of 12 passes for 71 yards.
Through four games, the Gophers have completed a total of only 33 passes, yet they have won all of those games by at least 17 points.
“Both me and Phil can throw the ball, but when you’ve got a successful running game [there’s less reason to pass],” Leidner said. “San Jose State threw the ball a ton, but they didn’t put as many points on the board as us.”
David Cobb added 25 carries for 125 yards and two touchdowns for the Gophers, who had 353 rushing yards, compared to 47 for San Jose State.
“[Big Ten] teams are going to be able to defend the run, so we’re going to have to pass,” Leidner said. “And we can definitely pass. We throw all week long [in practice].”
But Kill was pleased to see his team hold the ball for 41 minutes, 2 seconds, compared to 18:58 for the Spartans. The Gophers won the turnover battle 3-0. And they committed only three penalties, giving them 10 for the season.
“You look at the game, the difference to me was possession time, no turnovers, and we did a good job on third down for the most part,” Kill said.
Kill praised the fans for the energy they showed for a game that started at 11 a.m. He was pleased to note the Iowa game will start at 2:30 p.m.
“That means everybody will have a little bit more chance to have a good party and get started a little bit later,” he said. “We’ll have a great atmosphere. That’s what college football’s all about.”