Gophers football coach Jerry Kill says the true measure of a quarterback’s performance is won-loss record, and Mitch Leidner is 1-0 in his new role as the team’s undisputed starter.
But in a week featuring some impressive Big Ten quarterback play, last Thursday’s 42-20 nonconference victory over Eastern Illinois wasn’t exactly a statement game for Leidner. He had a shaky first quarter and finished 9-for-17 passing for 144 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s such a competitive kid,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Tuesday. “I think he wanted to go out and win the Super Bowl on his first five throws. Eventually he got calmed down. That’s kind of how the whole offense went.”
The Gophers will look for better from Leidner and Co. when they face Middle Tennessee State on Saturday. The Blue Raiders went 8-5 last year and breezed past a historically weak Savannah State squad 61-7 in their opener.
“They play hard,” Leidner said. “They’re a physical team, and they’re well-coached, so we’ve definitely got to be ready for this one.”
Leidner admitted he had some opening-night jitters against Eastern Illinois. It was the redshirt sophomore’s fifth career start, but the first four came last year as a fill-in when Philip Nelson was battling injuries.
“He’ll be fine,” Kill said of Leidner. “I thought he settled down in the second half. … When you’re the guy, it’s a lot different. He’ll get better each week.”
Other teams around the Big Ten enjoyed stronger quarterback play, Wisconsin notwithstanding. Tanner McEvoy derailed a potential Badgers victory over LSU by completing only eight of 24 passes for 50 yards.
But Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg passed for 454 yards against Central Florida, and Illinois’ Wes Lunt had four touchdown passes against Youngstown State.
Others showed even more precision:
• Michigan State’s Connor Cook went 12-for-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns against Jacksonville State.
• Michigan’s Devin Gardner went 13-for-14 for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Appalachian State.
• Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett went 12-for-15 for 226 yards and two touchdowns against Navy.
A few factors besides nerves contributed to Leidner’s slow start. Berkley Edwards dropped Leidner’s first pass. Eastern Illinois, with a new coaching staff, unveiled a host of defensive schemes Minnesota hadn’t seen on film. And the Gophers were slow to get the ball to two key playmakers — tight end Maxx Williams and wide receiver KJ Maye.
Moving forward, a key point of emphasis will be finding ways to get touches for Edwards, Williams, Maye, David Cobb, Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky.
“That’s our job,” Kill said. “We’ve been able to do it before in other places we’ve been. … There are several guys we’ve got to be able to dish the ball to, and I think it keeps people off balance.”
Last year, Leidner was just as dangerous running the ball as he was passing it. He finished second on the team with 102 carries for 407 yards and seven touchdowns. He had two short rushing touchdowns against Eastern Illinois, but was limited to seven carries for 15 yards.
“What [Limegrover’s] talked to me about is getting a run in there early on, maybe lower my shoulder, getting out of bounds,” Leidner said. “It really helps me get in the game a little bit more.”
But Limegrover thought seven carries for Leidner “was a good number.”
“I said right from the beginning we’re not going to have 30 percent of our game plan quarterback run anymore,” Limegrover said.
“We’re getting away from that. … I can’t say it’s going to be seven [carries] every week. Could be four one week, could be 11 another. But we want him upright and being our quarterback.”
If Leidner wants to use his legs early against Middle Tennessee State, Limegrover has a safer idea.
“We can maybe get him to run a mile before this game around the stadium or something,” Limegrover said. “Get him calmed down right from the beginning.”