ANN ARBOR, Mich. – On Sept. 21, Gophers freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner made his first collegiate start. He rushed for 151 yards while leading Minnesota to victory over San Jose State, its toughest opponent to that point.
On Sept. 28, the Gophers reinstated injured starter Philip Nelson, and the Gophers offense imploded in an unsightly loss to Iowa.
On Oct. 5, the Gophers told Leidner on Saturday morning that he would make his first collegiate road start against Michigan, in front of 111,000 fans, on Saturday afternoon.
While he committed key turnovers to begin and effectively end the game, Leidner played remarkably well the rest of the game.
Throwing the ball more effectively at Michigan than he did at home against San Jose State, Leidner completed 14 of 21 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 18 times for 66 yards to keep the Gophers within striking distance until midway through the fourth quarter.
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said the coaching staff decided well before Saturday that Leidner would start, and sounded as if Leidner will remain the starter.
“After last week’s game, they [the offensive staff] evaluated and that decision was made earlier in the week, so they decided to give Mitch his chance,” Claeys said.
Leidner had to adapt quickly to the idea of starting, and starting in front of what was, exponentially, the largest crowd he’s ever played in front of.
“When we were warming up out there, I was like, ‘How do they fit 100,00 people in this place?’ ” Leidner said. “Then we come back out for the game and they’re all stacked in there. It’s a cool atmosphere.”
Leidner fumbled to end the Gophers’ first drive.
“I just had it in one hand and as I was bringing it back up to tuck it away, they got me on that one,” Leidner said. “That’s another play I would have liked back. It would have been nice to make something happen on that first drive.”
Was he nervous? “Just getting adjusted,” he said. “I’ve never played in an away [college] game before. That’s a stupid excuse, but I was just trying to get a feel for things and you get off the sideline and you talk with the guys and you say, ‘Do I need to be a little louder, a little better?’ Then they tell me and we get back out there.”
Leidner kept the game close. He could have made it closer if not for two key plays in the fourth quarter. He underthrew wide-open receiver Donovahn Jones on a play that could have been a touchdown. And with the score 35-13, he threw an interception that was returned 72 yards for a touchdown.
More important is this:
At home against an unranked Iowa team, Nelson started and the offense gained 165 yards.
On the road, in front of 111,000 fans at Michigan Stadium, Leidner started and the Gophers gained 281.