Mitch Leidner has turf toe and a sprained knee ligament, but the bigger question now might be his injured psyche.
The Gophers starting quarterback isn’t letting physical ailments stop him. After spraining his medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sept. 6 against Middle Tennessee State, Leidner played most of last Saturday’s 30-7 loss at TCU.
He exited the stadium with a protective boot on his left foot, but after being diagnosed with turf toe — a sprain of the ligaments around the big toe — he was back at practice Tuesday. Coach Jerry Kill confirmed the QB’s toe is not broken and didn’t rule out Leidner for Saturday’s game against San Jose State.
“He’s playing with a knee injury and so forth, but we’ll see if he can move around and do what he did last week,” Kill said. “He was 100 percent. He was ready to go. We didn’t do a great job protecting him, and the backs didn’t block very well, and he got hit too many times.
“So we’ve got to get that taken care of.”
Leidner could get another chance to face San Jose State, the team he dominated last year in his first college start. With Philip Nelson injured, Leidner rushed 24 times for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-24 victory, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Leidner was so effective, fans grumbled when Kill reinstated Nelson the following week and stuck with him through an agonizing 23-7 loss to Iowa.
Now, Leidner is the one Gophers fans are grumbling about, especially on social media and message boards. Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten in passing offense, at 130.7 yards per game. Leidner has completed 26 of 54 passes (48.1 percent) for 362 yards with four interceptions.
“Mitch is my guy,” wide receiver KJ Maye said. “He’s like a brother to me, so I know I can tell him anything that’s on my mind. I’m going to stay in his ear, and I’m going to stay in his corner. Mitch has just got to relax and just play. He’s doing fine, though.”
Backup quarterback Chris Streveler has finished all three games, throwing only four passes and completing three, including a 12-yard touchdown to Maxx Williams for the team’s lone score at TCU.
The Gophers could be cautious this week with Leidner, giving the redshirt sophomore time to heal, knowing their ground game will be critical to beating San Jose State. Minnesota rushed for 353 yards against the Spartans last year, with Leidner doing most of the damage on the ground.
Streveler is one of the team’s fastest players, and the Gophers already have given him 13 carries for 56 yards (4.3 average). Leidner has been limited to 21 carries for 51 yards (2.4 average) and was simply not a threat on read option plays against TCU.
But this is hardly a quarterback controversy. Streveler, a redshirt freshman, knows Leidner is still the undisputed starter and his role is to be ready as Plan B.
“I know if Mitch can play, he’s going to play,” Streveler said Tuesday. “I’m not really sure.”
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was asked, point blank, if he thinks Leidner can be a good passing quarterback.
“I do,” Limegrover said. “I think everybody wants to focus on Mitch. He’s got to feel comfortable … and I don’t think he feels comfortable now going back and throwing the football.
“So what’s happening is he’s trying to do too much, and it’s getting him in trouble. I think that has to start up front. … That goes back to the offensive line, backs, tight ends — all those guys — doing what they need to in pass protection.”
Kill said TCU’s defense will be among the best the Gophers see this season. San Jose State, meanwhile, ranked 103rd in scoring defense last year (35.1 points per game) and is coming off a 59-13 loss at Auburn.
This could be a chance for the Gophers offense to get healthy. They hope Leidner feels better Saturday, whether he plays or not.