Gophers coach Jerry Kill insisted Sunday that there is “no controversy” at quarterback, hinting Mitch Leidner will remain the starter, with freshman Demry Croft getting phased in gradually.
“Mitch is not the reason we’re struggling so much,” Kill said, one day removed from an unsightly 27-0 loss at No. 13 Northwestern. “... There’s no controversy or any of that stuff. It’s just, we didn’t play very good.”
Croft replaced Leidner in the fourth quarter Saturday but couldn’t prevent the team’s first shutout loss to Northwestern since 1959. Kill pulled Croft’s redshirt, then watched him complete five of 11 passes for 27 yards, while taking three sacks and nearly getting intercepted twice.
“Everybody’s going to make a big deal out of [Croft’s debut],” Kill said. “But it’s not as big a deal as everybody will make out of it.”
The reason Croft played, Kill said, is “we’ve got to have a backup quarterback ready to play. And we moved [Chris] Streveler to receiver, and that’s where he’s going to play.”
Kill said redshirt freshman quarterback Jacques Perra has done a good job in practice, so the team is moving forward with Leidner, Croft and Perra as its three quarterbacks.
For now, it’s a basic question: Which one gives the Gophers the best chance to win Saturday at Purdue?
The Gophers (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) might have entered the season with hopes of winning the West Division. Now, they could be scrambling to reach six victories for bowl eligibility.
The schedule suggests they’d better beat Purdue (1-4, 0-1). But the Boilermakers just missed an upset against No. 4 Michigan State.
“There’s several things we can do,” Kill said of the quarterback playing time. “I don’t want to get into it right now, but we did some things with Jordan Lynch to get him a little experience in certain situations. But I haven’t even gotten that far yet. I can’t tell you what I’m going to do.”
In 2010, Kill’s final year at Northern Illinois, he had a third-year starter at quarterback in Chandler Harnish. Lynch was a freshman, but Kill started using him for a play here or there. Over nine games, Lynch rushed for 362 yards and threw only six passes, as Harnish had one of the best passing seasons in school history. Lynch blossomed into a 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist.
Croft got the chance to lead four drives and had some good moments but showed his inexperience, too.
“We haven’t had games where we could play Demry and Jacques Perra,” said Kill, whose team sweated through three-point wins over Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio to close nonconference play.
Three hours before Sunday’s team meeting, Kill wondered aloud what strategy he should use to get the players over the Northwestern debacle.
Were extra wind sprints the answer? “I don’t know if we’ll get much out of them,” Kill said. “Do you watch film? Or do you throw it in the trash and start from scratch? I mean, it’s a good question, I don’t know.”
The Gophers have sunk to 127th among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense (15.4 points per game).
Against Northwestern, they barely could run (2.2 yards per attempt) or pass (3.1).
The offensive line is missing two would-be starters in Ben Lauer (broken hand) and Jon Christenson (knee surgery). Christenson could return this week, but Kill said he won’t know until Tuesday.
Leidner is a team captain, who led late fourth-quarter drives to help beat Colorado State and Ohio. But his confidence looked shattered against Northwestern, which leads the nation in scoring defense (7.0 points per game).
The fourth-year junior completed only 10 of 21 passes for 72 yards, with an interception and a fumble that Northwestern returned for a touchdown.
The Gophers looked helpless, but some long-successful Big Ten teams had issues Saturday, too. Indiana gave No. 1 Ohio State a scare, Iowa won at Wisconsin, and Illinois beat Nebraska.
“The way the Big Ten came out yesterday, it looks to me like anybody can beat anybody,” Kill said. “So we’ve just got to get better. The deficiencies we’ve got — we’ve got to quit talking about them and get them taken care of.”