The group of young fans wore maroon-and-gold shirts. They screamed. They could barely stand to wait for the traffic light outside TCF Bank Stadium. They loudly planned how they would storm the field on Thursday night to celebrate a presumed Gophers upset of TCU.
One kid yelled, “I’m going to be standing next to Jerry Kill at midfield.’’
Turns out the kid didn’t make it that far. There’s no shame in that. The Gophers offense didn’t make it that far very often, either.
Facing a rebuilt defense expected to be the weakness of a fine team, Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner offered a performance that leaves in doubt how far he can take his team, and perhaps even how long he can keep his job.
One play revealed the problem. It wasn’t definitive, just illustrative.
In the second quarter, the Gophers faced third-and-4 at the TCU 25. Leidner dropped back and quickly released a pass toward Rashad Still, who had broken open toward the right sideline.
Leidner was not pressured. He had an open receiver. He bounced the pass, low and behind Still. The Gophers settled for a field goal.
A stronger throw may or may not have led to a touchdown, may or may not have led to an upset victory over the No. 2 team in the country. We’ll never know.
What we do know after watching TCU beat Minnesota 23-17 is that the Gophers’ passing offense looks much like it did late last season, when a couple of completed passes could have led to upsets of Ohio State and Wisconsin.
As impressive as Kill’s body of work has been at Minnesota, his team lost four of its last six games last season, and two or three of those losses may have been reversed with a couple of completed passes to open receivers.
Although Leidner finished 19-for-35 passing for 197 yards, with four minutes remaining in the game he had completed just 13 of 27 for 123 yards and rushed 11 times for 17 yards. He had taken two sacks. On the first, he fumbled, leading to a TCU touchdown. On the second, he reacted slowly to a strong pass rush while in the end zone and fumbled again.
Leidner’s challenge this season is not merely to improve but to improve without star running back David Cobb and talented tight end Maxx Williams.
Cobb was the Gophers’ most important offensive player in 2014. Williams became Leidner’s go-to receiver by becoming his go-anywhere receiver. One of the reasons Williams looked so impressive was that he had to leap or dive to make so many catches. Even some of Leidner’s most important completions were more due to Williams’ catch radius than Leidner’s accuracy.
Thursday, Leidner dived into the deep end of the college football pool without his water wings. He got to face a rebuilt TCU defense but would have to succeed with raw receivers and new running backs.
Rodrick Williams fumbled on his way toward the end zone. Receivers dropped three passes in the first half, two of which could have made a difference. The offensive line was in flux all night.
So it wasn’t all Leidner’s fault that the Gophers offense meandered, but the deflection and sharing of blame are not the same things as absolution.
He played an unproven defense in a big game at home and produced 17 points. That’s not all on him, but he’s the place every realistic conversation will start.
Last year, Leidner’s job was to get the ball to his best playmakers. This year, his job is to be one of the Gophers’ best playmakers. He wasn’t always up to the task on Thursday.
On a third down midway through the third quarter, Leidner demonstrated what is possible when he throws on time and hits a receiver in stride. He put a pass on Drew Wolitarsky’s numbers, allowing Wolitarsky to turn quickly upfield for a 30-yard catch-and-run.
Leidner makes those plays too infrequently, which will be a problem every time the Gophers play an opponent worthy of a national television audience.