With Philip Nelson recovering from a right hamstring injury, Mitch Leidner appears poised to make his first Big Ten start Saturday when the Gophers play Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium.
Coach Jerry Kill has yet to say Leidner will start, but at last report, Nelson’s hamstring was about 80 percent healed.
“We’re not going to change our style and what we do offensively,” Kill said Tuesday, referring to an attack that has relied heavily on quarterback runs. “So [Nelson’s] going to need to be 100 percent for us to give him the green light, and we certainly will if he’s ready to go.”
Leidner and Nelson have each rushed for more than 120 yards in a game this season, but they’ve combined to lead one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.
The Gophers rank 118th out of 123 FBS teams with an average of 105.3 passing yards per game. Through four contests, they have 16 rushing touchdowns and only one passing TD. They rank last in the Big Ten with 33 completions; the next-lowest Big Ten teams, Michigan and Wisconsin, have 62 apiece.
“The only thing that matters to me is if we get the ‘W’,” Leidner said. “I could care less about stats.”
The Gophers are 4-0 and have won each game — against UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State — by at least 17 points. Minnesota ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging 282.2 yards per game.
But the question is, will the Gophers be ready to pass if and when Big Ten teams start shutting down their running game?
Iowa is considerably better defending the run than the pass. The Hawkeyes have held three consecutive opponents, including Iowa State, to fewer than 75 yards rushing. Iowa State passed for 260 yards against the Hawkeyes, and the one team to defeat Iowa — Northern Illinois — passed for 275 yards.
“I think we would do whatever it takes,” Leidner said. “We do have a big passing arsenal. If we have to use it we will.”
In three starts, Nelson completed 21 of 41 attempts for 245 yards and a touchdown before straining his right hamstring in the Week 3 victory over Western Illinois.
Leidner entered that game in relief and completed seven of eight passes, but he was just 5-for-12 through the air against San Jose State. Of course, he rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns against the Spartans, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Just two weeks earlier, Nelson had rushed for 122 yards at New Mexico State, so the offense has looked similar with both quarterbacks.
Kill said the Gophers have simply taken what defenses have given them. Western Illinois and San Jose State kept two safeties back in pass coverage, challenging the Gophers to run.
Kill said in Big Ten play, he expects the Gophers to face more “Cover 1,” which is tougher to run against because only one safety plays back.
“I think the big thing is having an efficient passing game, being accurate and efficient, making plays when you need to,” Kill said.
He pointed to Leidner’s 37-yard, over-the-shoulder pass to KJ Maye on third down in the second quarter against San Jose State.
“We need those kinds of plays,” Kill said. “We probably need more of them as we go to be successful. When we throw the ball, we need to throw it with great accuracy and pick up third downs.”
Kill also stressed the importance of limiting turnovers. Former Gophers quarterback Max Shortell had three interceptions and a fumble in last year’s 31-13 loss at Iowa. Nelson has thrown two interceptions this year, and Leidner has yet to throw one, in 21 fewer attempts.
“You’re only as good as your last game, so we’ll see if we don’t force passes,” Kill said. “That will be the key to the game, I believe. Last year we had four turnovers, and if we have that, we’ll have the same result.”