Matt Leidner lost about 30 pounds in the four weeks leading to the Holiday Bowl, thinking his football career was basically over and knowing he needed foot surgery.
He’d come to the Gophers as a walk-on and played only sparingly as a third-string center. He was best known as quarterback Mitch Leidner’s younger brother.
But Monday morning, one day before the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, offensive line coach Bart Miller delivered surprising news. Starting center Tyler Moore had suffered a back injury. With No. 2 option Jared Weyler also injured, the Gophers suddenly needed Matt Leidner to start.
“I ate a couple big meals, trying to get some weight back on for the game,” Leidner said, chuckling. “But I don’t think it really helped.”
The Gophers were already big underdogs against Washington State. Minnesota was missing 10 suspended players and coming off a two-day boycott, with questions about coach Tracy Claeys’ future swirling so strongly, they still haven’t been answered.
As the shadows lengthened before kickoff at Qualcomm Stadium, Matt Leidner knew this was no time for “first-game screw ups.”
“I hadn’t started a football game in like four years, so I was trying to figure out what I used to do in high school,” he said. “I was listening to some old songs I listened to before games, just trying to get my mind right.”
With AC/DC selections, such as “Rock-n-Roll Train” and “Shoot to Thrill,” echoing in his ears, Matt Leidner quietly played a major role in Minnesota’s 17-12 upset.
“We ask our centers to do a lot,” Miller said. “You’re the captain of the line. You’re the quarterback of the line of scrimmage. Matt’s worked tremendously hard. He lives in the weight room. I had every confidence he’d be able to get the guys lined up, make the calls and things like that.”
Moore had started 20 consecutive games at center, dating to last season. And the Gophers were facing a Washington State defensive line that specialized in confusing opposing offenses with last-second shifts.
That tactic led to several false-start penalties from the Gophers, but as Miller noted, Washington State had drawn more than 30 of those flags during the season against the likes of Stanford and Oregon.
Matt Leidner, who will graduate this spring with a mechanical engineering degree, finished without a bad snap. At 6-2 and about 260 pounds, he delivered five opponent “knock downs.”
If an injury had knocked him from the game, the Gophers’ next option at center — Plan D — was Jonah Pirsig. The 6-9 Pirsig is an NFL prospect at tackle, but center would have been a stretch.
“I sat next to Jonah on the bus ride back from the walk-through, the day before the game,” Mitch Leidner said. “He was like, ‘Matt cannot get hurt. I cannot play center.’ And I was like, ‘You’ll be fine. Your snaps are great. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
At least the Leidner brothers had familiarity. Matt was Lakeville South’s starting center as a junior in 2011, during Mitch’s senior year. They’ve always shared a close bond, but in the weeks before the bowl game, big brother was angry.
Matt Leidner was ready to have surgery and call it a career even with a season of eligibility left as a redshirt junior. He was shedding pounds to speed his recovery. He’d injured his right foot before the Wisconsin game. Doctors eventually went in and shaved a bunion, reattached a torn ligament with a screw and reset a broken bone.
Pirsig and Mitch Leidner told him the team needed him to “stick it out,” through the bowl game, just in case.
“He was starting to lose weight,” Mitch Leidner said, “and I kept telling him, ‘You never know, you could get an opportunity. You shouldn’t be losing weight yet.’ It’s just funny how everything kind of happened.”
Matt Leidner said he felt faster with all the lost weight. He got beat on a few plays, as could be expected, but held his own. He had played in seven previous Gophers games, all in mop-up duty.
But this was straight out of Hollywood, a “Rudy” sequel, where the hardworking, behind-the-scenes character takes on a starring role.
After the postgame hugs Tuesday night, Matt Leidner returned on the team charter at 4 a.m. Five hours later, he was checking in for surgery. He’ll be bedridden for another two weeks, but he’s having fun reliving the memories.
“It was an honor to represent the U and the state in this bowl game,” he said. “I’m still amazed how everything worked out. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”