Longtime observers said it was the biggest crowd to watch a Gophers spring game since the Lou Holtz era.
The Gophers estimated that 10,100 turned out at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday to watch a team trying to build off its first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962.
But even with a genuine buzz in the warm spring air, coach Jerry Kill was careful not to reveal too much to a Big Ten Network audience. Surely, he knew his good friend Gary Patterson would be watching, studying up for Texas Christian’s visit for the Sept. 3 season opener.
So the Gophers disguised their personnel groupings and did a lot more huddling than they did during a spring that saw them install a new, no-huddle offense.
“We did things we wouldn’t do in the game,” Kill admitted. “We just tried to experiment a little bit.”
The results didn’t exactly electrify the crowd, but there were a few highlights, as the offense put up 24 points in 23 drives against the defense.
The Gophers rested their starting secondary, knowing there wasn’t much for those four seniors to prove. On the opening drive, the first-team offense drove 65 yards for a touchdown.
Mitch Leidner hit KJ Maye for a 27-yard gain down the sideline, and Rodrick Williams had six carries for 33 yards on his one and only drive. Williams carried three defenders into the end zone on his 12-yard touchdown run.
Williams dropped 20 pounds after the Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri, recognizing the chance he has as a senior to take over for David Cobb. But Williams also wanted to show that he hasn’t lost his power.
“That was my plan, to let [the coaches] know nothing’s changed,” Williams said. “I lost the weight, but my mentality didn’t change.”
After that touchdown, the Gophers went 10 drives without a point. Twice during that stretch junior defensive end Hank Ekpe stymied drives with sacks of Leidner. Ekpe was slowed by a severe sinus infection last season, but he was one of the most impressive players in camp.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Kill said. “He’s playing three times [better] than he did a year ago. The light bulb’s come on, just like David Cobb. There’s not many guys his size who can run a legitimate [4.6-second 40-yard dash]. He’s got a chance. He keeps working, he’ll play a lot of ball on Sundays.”
Leidner finished 5-for-11 for 53 yards. Redshirt freshman Jeff Jones dropped a third-down pass from Leidner, and two other redshirt freshmen — Desmond Gant and Jerry Gibson — had drops, too.
Gant beat his man on a post pattern, and Chris Streveler hit him right in the hands, only to see Gant drop it. Two weeks earlier the same thing had happened in a scrimmage with highly touted freshman Isaiah Gentry.
“I’d rather have them drop balls now than later on,” Kill said. “They’ll be fine. … You don’t want to see that happen, but we got by people. That’s the good thing, and we just need to finish.”
Streveler completed 11 of 20 passes and scored on a 64-yard touchdown run. That was one of the day’s biggest highlights for the fans, along with a 56-yard field goal from Ryan Santoso. The sophomore kicker made that one with room to spare.
• Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky was sick and didn’t play. Linebacker Everett Williams was at a funeral.
• Besides Williams, the other running backs had tough yardage. Rodney Smith had 12 carries for 40 yards, Berkley Edwards had 12 carries for 26 yards, and Jones had one carry for 5 yards.
• Right tackle Jonah Pirsig turned an ankle, but the injury didn’t appear to be too serious after the game.
• The Gophers got a big recruiting commitment after the game when Mayer Lutheran offensive lineman Sam Schlueter announced he was picking Minnesota over Wisconsin and Michigan State.