When the Gophers upset Nebraska in Lincoln two years ago, quarterback Mitch Leidner made big plays with his feet, rushing 22 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a different story last year, when Nebraska pounded Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium, as Leidner rushed eight times for minus-1 yard. The Cornhuskers smothered the entire Gophers ground attack, allowing just 65 yards.
With nowhere to run, the Gophers aired things out, with Leidner completing 26 of 40 passes for 301 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
If the Gophers are to beat No. 21 Nebraska on Saturday, Leidner might need to blend those two performances into one. Throwing the deep ball could prove critical, and so could Leidner’s resurgence as a runner.
He connected on his two longest passes of the season last week against Purdue and finished with 231 passing yards. The senior also rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns, helping extend the four-game winning streak.
“I think Minnesota has confidence,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I think that quarterback is kind of leading that with the way he’s playing. He looks like a tough guy. He looks like a guy that’s going to fight to make plays.”
Rodney Smith has been the Gophers’ best playmaker, with 14 touchdowns and 144.3 all-purpose yards per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. Shannon Brooks (86.7) is another weapon who’s expected to return after missing last week’s game because of an unspecified injury.
But the Gophers will need Leidner at his best to remain in the Big Ten West race.
Minnesota, for example, was 4-for-15 on third downs against Purdue, a rate that probably won’t cut it against Nebraska.
“I think that’s going to be a big emphasis for us in practice this week,” Leidner said. “Last week, a couple missed throws on third downs that I should have had.”
Leidner did connect with Rashad Still on a 46-yard pass to start the game and added a 51-yarder to Eric Carter. Before that, the team’s longest pass play of the season was a 35-yarder to Drew Wolitarsky.
“We knew we needed to get there, and it was great to see those guys make plays,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “Both Rashad and Eric were kind of banged up earlier in the year, and I think they’re back where they left off a year ago.”
The Gophers expect Nebraska to focus on stopping their running game again. But that’s harder for opponents than last year, when Leidner was playing on one leg. He had offseason surgery to repair ligament damage in his left foot and is back to full speed.
The coaching staff limited Leidner to 7.3 carries in the team’s first four Big Ten games. But he rushed the ball 14 times against Purdue, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
“I don’t feel good about starting a game and planning it that way, saying, ‘Mitch is going to carry the ball 30 times,’ ” coach Tracy Claeys said. “If we’re having trouble moving the ball with the other stuff, then obviously we feel confident in him carrying the ball.
“I do think since he hasn’t carried the ball as much the last few games, he looked quicker [against Purdue]. And he’s learned. He’s gone down a couple times, so he’s not taking that big hit.”
Leidner suffered a concussion against Iowa on Oct. 8, when he turned the corner along the sideline and got drilled by two Hawkeyes defenders. He missed the next week’s game at Maryland and then returned.
“[Six] of the games, he’s played awfully well, and a couple other ones, he’ll tell you he probably could have played better,” Claeys said. “The teams that do well and finish — their seniors have to play well. And he’s somebody that’s going to have to play well for us to get where we want to be.”