Hartman: 4-0 start brings optimism to Gophers

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 12:01 AM
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Mitch Leidner’s strong performance Saturday — 151 yards rushing and four touchdowns — in the Gophers’ 43-24 victory over San Jose State earned him both plenty of praise and this hug from coach Jerry Kill’s wife, Rebecca.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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You would have to go back to when Glen Mason was coach to find a time when the state will be as excited about a Gophers football game as it will be for the home contest with Iowa next weekend.

The game is already a sellout.

Saturday’s 43-24 victory over San Jose State, a game that was televised on ESPN2 and featured a quarterback in Mitch Leidner who rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns, will help to put the Gophers on the map and give them exposure they have not had for years.

That exposure will only grow if they can beat the Hawkeyes, a team they have beaten two of the past three years, and reclaim Floyd of Rosedale. Last year’s Gophers were 4-0 as well, but they lost 31-13 at Iowa City to open Big Ten play and finished only 2-6 in the Big Ten.

The Gophers held San Jose State, a team that went 11-2 last year and averaged 34.8 points per game, to only one touchdown in the second half, a touchdown that came long after the game was decided.

That’s keeping with a trend for the Gophers. In four games this season, they have outscored their opponents 97-37 in the second half.

Yes, the chatter locally and even nationally is talking about the 6-4, 240-pound Leidner, the Lakeville South product who has led the Gophers to two victories and looks to be among the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, based on those two performances.

The Gophers recruited Leidner as a passer, but on Saturday he had went only 5-for-12 passing for 71 yards. “I never really thought about that,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a passer, but I mean it’s fun running the ball, that’s for sure.”

Looking back to last year when he was redshirted, Leidner said he had a good ability to learn how to carry a pile of defenders by working as the scout quarterback against the Gophers first-team defense.

“I pretty much got that experience last year on the scout team,” Leidner said. “There were a few weeks in a row where we were playing — I think it was Nebraska and Michigan and Illinois, all running quarterbacks — they had me doing middle drill and coach [Jerry] Kill told me to go live, and that’s when I learned how to run the football.”

Still, Leidner said he will be ready to throw when the time comes.

“I feel really comfortable throwing the deep ball, definitely,” he said. “I don’t hesitate at all. I have good receivers out there, just have to throw it up and give them a chance.”

Ground game worked

Kill talked about the team’s decision to use Leidner as primarily a running quarterback Saturday.

“The thing is, we took what they gave us,” Kill said. “We tried play-action passes, but their safeties were playing about 12 to 14 yards deep in the soft corner. So with that it is hard to play a play action, but we hit them a couple times.

“If you don’t get that extra guy down there in the run, then you better be able to run the ball. And then the quarterback is the extra guy that can run it. Running the action game and mixing up the power game, it was a good formula, no question about that.”

While Kill was impressed with Saturday’s performance, he said the Gophers defense has to improve its pass-rushing and secondary play and can’t allow a team to pass for 439 yards like San Jose State did.

But if the Gophers can continue to control the clock with their running game, like they did Saturday in winning the time of possession 41:02 to 18:58, they will beat Iowa next week and a few other teams in Big Ten play.

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