The Gophers football team lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury Saturday, and then came a more harrowing moment, as head coach Jerry Kill suffered another seizure, just as the players headed to the locker room at halftime.
Playing without those two leaders, the Gophers found themselves trailing Western Illinois, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision, by five points late in the third quarter.
“I just kept screaming, ‘We need to wake up!’ ” Gophers running back Rodrick Williams said. “We were out there playing hard, but we needed to go back to the fundamentals, go back to what we’ve been practicing.”
After losing a fumble at the Western Illinois 3-yard line, backup quarterback Mitch Leidner led the Gophers on three consecutive touchdown drives, as they pulled away for a 29-12 victory before an announced crowd of 42,217 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Williams and fellow running back David Cobb each finished with two touchdown runs, helping the Gophers improve to 3-0 heading into a much stiffer nonconference test next week against San Jose State.
By late afternoon, Kill was back home resting after being examined at a hospital. He has suffered from epilepsy since 2005, and this was the third time in three years with the Gophers that he has suffered a seizure during a game.
“You’ve got to understand — he’s done so much for all of us, none of us want to let him down,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “I mean that’s as good a guy as there is in college football, and we hate to see that happen. But that’s the situation, and the good thing is, I know he knows that we’ll get the job done.”
Nelson limped off the field after a 13-yard rush early in the second quarter. He tried loosening up his hamstring on the sidelines, to no avail. So on came Leidner, a redshirt freshman from Lakeville South who had played a few snaps in the first two games but had yet to attempt a pass.
On the Gophers’ next possession, Leidner led them on a 71-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by a 33-yard pass to tight end Maxx Williams on Leidner’s first college completion. Rodrick Williams finished that drive with a 1-yard run and later added a 37-yard touchdown scamper. Cobb scored on runs of 2 yards and 3 yards.
“It helps when I’ve got these two running backs here to give the ball to,” Leidner said. “It definitely takes the pressure off the quarterback. It did feel really good to get out there with the guys. We had a good time, [even though] we started off a little slow.”
Western Illinois took a 12-7 lead with 9:34 remaining in the third quarter when Trenton Norvell hit Lance Lenoir with an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Gophers looked like they might go back in front, when Leidner fumbled at the 3. That was the only turnover of the game for either team, but the Minnesota defense kept Western Illinois pinned deep in its own territory, forcing a quick punt, leading to the string of three Gophers touchdowns.
“In the second half, we really played a complete game,” Claeys said, noting that Western Illinois had only 6 rushing yards after halftime. “Defensively, we did a great job of giving ourselves field position. I’m very pleased because we want to get to where we can win games defensively. And I think the way we’ve been struggling [offensively], it gives us a chance to win.”
Cobb led the Gophers with 13 carries for 82 yards, followed by Leidner (17 carries, 64 yards) and Rodrick Williams (10 carries, 56 yards).
Leidner also completed seven of eight passes for 105 yards.
“When you get in a tough situation like that, with the game still in the balance, and you have to put in your second quarterback — I mean, wow, what a performance,” Claeys said.
Leidner enrolled at the university in January 2012, just like Nelson but spent last year on the scout team while Nelson got the chance to start seven games.
“Every coach on defensive staff has a tremendous amount of respect for [Leidner] because he is a great competitor, and I think he showed that,” Claeys said. “He took over the game and made the plays he had to make, without getting as many reps in practice. He loves the game of football; there’s no question about it, and that showed today.”