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.

Second-year wideouts missing

When the Vikings selected Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft, they were hoping to get a set of college teammates from Arkansas that could come in and mesh with young starter Christian Ponder.

But Childs suffered a devastating injury to both his knees in his first training camp and has yet to play in an NFL game, and Wright, after having a successful rookie campaign, has been largely absent this year.

Wright was asked if it’s difficult to not being seeing as many passes with veterans Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings getting the bulk of the throws.

“You know the first game we only ran about 44 plays, and we have a lot of great weapons in our room, so we have to try and spread the ball around a lot,” Wright said. “I think I got thrown at twice or maybe three times the first game, and two times the second game. So you know, you just have to wait your turn, and when my game comes, I’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

Wright has just one reception for 21 yards through two games, but he said that doesn’t get him down.

“It doesn’t get frustrating,” Wright said. “Whenever I’m on the field I play 100 percent, and as long as I’m playing 100 percent and going as hard as I can and winning my matchups on the field, it doesn’t get frustrating.”

SID’s JOTTINGS

• Former Vikings coach Brad Childress was hired by Andy Reid, along with former Nevada coach Chris Ault, to help the Chiefs with their spread offense this season. After Kansas City defeated the Eagles on Thursday, Reid was asked if that game-planning has helped the team in its 3-0 start. “You saw us on the pistol looks in this game and you saw some last week with the option game,” said Reid, who worked with Childress for seven years in Philadelphia. “… It also helped last game, a couple of things, the wrinkles that we’ve done in the past games and they’ve come off that. So, I would tell you, yep.” Childress’ official title with the Chiefs is “spread game analyst/special projects coach.”

• Former world heavyweight champion Ken Norton, who died last week at age 70, fought twice in Minnesota. He fought at the St. Paul Civic Center on Aug. 14, 1975, beating Jose Luis Garcia in a fifth-round knockout, and on Aug. 19, 1979, he fought Scott LeDoux at Met Center in Bloomington, a fight that ended in a draw. Norton, who was knocked down twice in the 10th round against LeDoux, fought just twice more after that bout.

• Bill Pohlad, one of the owners of the Twins along with his brothers, is currently filming his first directorial feature in 20 years, but before that he is one of the main producers on the film “12 Years a Slave,” which is considered to be the top contender for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards. The film recently won the Toronto Film Festival’s top prize and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, who is another one of the producers.

• While former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber hasn’t found an NFL roster spot yet after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was in town on Saturday to talk football on the Gophers pregame show.
 

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