The Gophers added Jon Christenson, KJ Maye and Brandon Lingen to their growing list of injury concerns Saturday. They are banged up and somewhat rattled by this year’s shaky offensive start. And they have some fans clamoring to have them replace quarterback Mitch Leidner.
But here’s the bottom line: The Gophers are 1-1 against two teams that went a combined 22-4 last season.
The main takeaway from their 23-17 loss to TCU was that this Gophers defense looks like it has a chance to be elite.
Saturday raised more questions about the offense, especially Leidner, even though Minnesota pulled off a 23-20 overtime victory that ended Colorado State’s nine-game home winning streak.
Coach Jerry Kill tried keeping perspective Sunday.
“Last year, we weren’t very good either, at the start of [the season],” he said. “And we were playing a heck of a lot lesser teams.”
The Gophers opened last season with wins over Eastern Illinois (by 22 points) and Middle Tennessee State (11), both at home. When they stumbled 30-7 at TCU the next week and then managed just one pass completion, from Chris Streveler, against San Jose State, it was fair to wonder how they’d ever win a Big Ten game.
Leidner came back to lead them to a 5-3 Big Ten finish.
Injuries had mounted at this time last year, too, including a sprained knee ligament for Leidner. But this year’s list is even longer for the offense.
On the offensive line, Ben Lauer has been hobbled with a knee injury, Josh Campion missed the opener with a concussion and Christenson hurt his right knee at Colorado State. Kill didn’t know the extent of Christenson’s injury but said the senior wouldn’t be ready to play this week.
At tight end, Lincoln Plsek (back) and Duke Anyanwu (knee) could be out for the season, and Lingen suffered a concussion Saturday.
At receiver, Isaiah Gentry is due back from a hamstring injury this week, but Jeff Jones missed the Colorado State trip with a sprained ankle. Maye got flattened by a hit and returned to make the leaping 22-yard touchdown catch with 55 seconds remaining. The training staff kept him off the field during overtime.
“We’ll certainly check him out and make sure it’s not a rib,” Kill said. “He may be sore as heck, had all the adrenaline flowing [Saturday]. He might have broken a rib, I don’t know. I was worried about him, coming home on the plane and all that. He seemed to be doing OK, and he’s a tough kid, but we’ll just have to see.”
The Gophers also were down two safeties Saturday, as Damarius Travis (hamstring) and Ace Rogers (knee) weren’t on the trip.
The team will look to get healthier — physically and mentally — this week against Kent State, which lost its opener to Illinois 52-3. Minnesota will close nonconference play the following week against Ohio, which just upset Marshall, a 13-win team from last season.
Sunday, on his weekly segment with WCCO Radio (830-AM), Kill was asked if he’ll look for upcoming opportunities to play true freshmen running back Shannon Brooks and quarterback Demry Croft. Kill bristled, treating the question as an assumption the Gophers would have a big enough lead to experiment.
“The bottom line is we want to win; I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get in position to play some kids.”
Kill seems in no hurry to replace Leidner, who overcame a brutal start Saturday, when the Gophers went six drives without a first down. During that stretch, he was 2-for-9 for 9 yards. After that, he completed 58 percent of his passes (21 of 36) for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
Colorado State hurried Leidner on three of his first six incompletions, but the Gophers limited pressure the rest of the afternoon.
“Sometimes when you start getting hit a little bit, you start throwing off your back foot, not stepping into your throws,” Kill said. “If you go watch the touchdown pass [to Maye] — fakes the zone read, great protection, steps into the ball, perfect throw.
“When he gets time to throw it, he’s been proficient. It’s when he gets rushed a little bit. He’s still going to have to learn to slide a little bit in the pocket, but we’ve got to help him, too.”
Kill is relieved to be 1-1, and not 0-2, but he knows there is a ton of work ahead this week. He was on his way to an offensive staff meeting early Sunday afternoon.
“It ain’t going to be fun in there,” he said. “Not with me.”