Fort Collins, Colo. – The Gophers on Saturday put together a dramatic fourth-quarter drive and won in overtime.
How are we supposed to feel about that?
How is Jerry Kill supposed to feel about that?
The 23-20 victory allowed the Gophers to avoid an 0-2 start and a four-game losing streak. It might eventually help them become eligible for a bowl, or become more attractive to a major bowl. It also means that quarterback Mitch Leidner, who erased many of his mistakes with a beautiful throw for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, may have salvaged his job.
So was Saturday a net victory or loss for the program?
For most of the game the Gophers didn’t play well enough to beat a team missing its best player, receiver Rashard Higgins. They won despite a frequently ugly performance from Leidner and uncharacteristic defensive lapses.
Leidner’s beautiful 22-yard touchdown to K.J. Maye with 2:16 remaining in regulation gave the Gophers the lead and Kill justification for sticking with his most experienced quarterback.
But should he, the rest of the season?
Football coaches face risk-reward decisions about every five minutes. Punt, or go for it? Take a knee, or take a chance? Now Kill faces a decision that could define the season.
He can stick with Leidner, the guy he has invested so much time and trust in, and who just won an important game in a tough place.
He could opt for backup Chris Streveler, who is a more dynamic runner than Leidner but perhaps less reliable as a passer.
Or Kill can roll the dice and take the redshirt off of freshman Demry Croft, perhaps the best quarterback prospect Kill has had at Minnesota.
Playing Croft would be a gamble. So is going for it on fourth down, a strategy that every analytics expert in football favors. In football, not taking chances is a risky strategy in itself.
Before Leidner’s clutch touchdown, he air-mailed a wide-open tight end on a third-down pass. In the first quarter, he went 1-for-7 for 2 yards. In the first half, he completed 8-for-19 with no gains of more than 9 yards.
With decent quarterback play, the Gophers may have won this game by 30, instead of requiring heroics.
Leidner was at his best in no-huddle situations, and with the game in doubt. Receiver Drew Wolitarsky said Leidner is calmer this year. Leidner said he stepped into the huddle before his touchdown pass and told his teammates, “This is what we live for.’’
“It wasn’t pretty,’’ Kill said. “Offensively in the first half it was not very good. I’ll tell it like it is — we’ve got to get better. It was a great win, though.’’
I say this is the perfect time to try out Croft. After two difficult games, the Gophers finally enter the creampuff portion of their nonconference schedule over the next two games, facing Kent State and Ohio. Start Croft now, and he could gain experience by the time the Big Ten schedule starts.
Leidner is neither the best passing quarterback nor the best running quarterback in the program. He is starting because of experience that often doesn’t seem to prove beneficial to him; because of status, not performance.
He showed grit, but that’s not the same thing as accuracy. He completed 23 of 45 passes for 233 yards despite often having receivers wide open.
Here’s how the Gophers can fix their offense in time for the Big Ten schedule:
• Break in Croft.
• Stop pretending the Wildcat offense surprises defenses. When the Gophers bring in Streveler, the defense knows he’s going to run.
• Give even more snaps to freshman running back Rodney Smith.
• Feature Drew Wolitarsky, a fast, physical receiver, whenever possible. He gets open, reliably catches the ball and runs well after the catch.
Kill said last week that “we don’t get any preseason games.’’ He’s right. He has had to make lineup decisions while facing powerful TCU and competitive Colorado State.
Now he has a chance to reset his offense. If Kill thinks Croft can take this team farther, he shouldn’t let one beautiful, clutch pass cloud his decision.