Mitch Leidner didn’t look very good, until he did.
The Gophers didn’t look very capable, until they were.
After a spring and summer of waiting to see what the 2014 Gophers football team would look like, fans had to wait a little while longer on Thursday night, before Leidner led the Gophers to a belated 42-20 blowout of many-thumbed Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.
This team should be strong on defense and in the running game. Its ceiling will be determined by how well Leidner throws the ball downfield.
So, in their first quasi-meaningful action since a three-game losing streak that ended last year and raised uncomfortable questions about their passing game, the Gophers didn’t throw a pass to anyone other than a running back for about 19 minutes, and didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver for about 21 minutes.
That’s troubling because this team has plenty of talent at the skill positions, in David Cobb, Berkley Edwards, Donovahn Jones, KJ Maye and Maxx Williams, among others.
Leidner made plenty of positive plays, just not many from the pocket. He underthrew Jones on his first deep pass. His first pass to Williams came on a bootleg. Leidner’s biggest play came on a 35-yard TD pass to Jones, but that play deserves further examination.
Leidner’s pass came in low and toward the middle of the field, toward the defender. The Eastern Illinois cornerback was so tempted by the location of that throw that he lunged forward, hoping for an interception. Jones snatched it, spun and raced untouched to the end zone.
Against a better opponent, that would be an incompletion at best.
Leidner finished 9-for-17 for 144 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, two sacks and one fumble. He also rushed seven times for 26 yards and two touchdowns.
Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner’s early struggles were caused by Eastern Illinois’ aggressive defense, which blitzed often and with variety.
“I think he just settled in,” Kill said. “You’ve got to understand, everybody wants it to be right here, and it doesn’t always happen that way. … Through the season, you get better and better and better. That’s how you judge it, on the scoreboard. He saw more blitzes than he’ll see in a lifetime.”
As a whole, the Gophers, like Leidner, looked uneven until they built a lead. They used two of their timeouts in the first quarter, and another early in the third, to get organized. Leidner fumbled in the first quarter while trying to scramble. The Gophers’ first touchdown resulted from Eastern Illinois’ second fumbled snap of the game, giving them the ball at the Panthers 5.
The Gophers required four snaps to score from there, with Leidner running it in after he was unable to find an open receiver.
Last year, the Gophers ranked 115th in team passing, ahead of, apparently, only teams quarterbacked by Josh Freeman. The departure of Philip Nelson left the quarterback job to Leidner, a prolific passer at Lakeville South who looked more like a powerhouse runner when he played in 2013.
During the 2013 season-ending three-game losing streak, against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse, the Gophers often broke receivers open, only to have the quarterback of the moment miss them.
Leidner may beat nonconference opponents and lesser Big Ten teams with his legs. He’ll need to display what current NFL scouts call “arm talent” — the ability to fit passes into small space, on time.
“I don’t think you can judge that or evaluate that except on the scoreboard,” Kill said. “And that’s how you judge quarterbacks.”
As recently as last season, Gophers coaches were lauding their two-quarterback system, but they’ll be better off this season if Leidner is the only one who takes meaningful snaps.
Eastern Illinois may have blitzed him relentlessly, but he’ll face the same treatment from a succession of teams if he doesn’t make teams pay for pressure.
Kill predicts Leidner will improve during the season, just as Connor Cook did at Michigan State last year.
If Leidner displays “arm talent,” the talent around him should look awfully good.