If the Gophers ever risked taking Indiana State too casually Saturday, they had themselves whipped into a frenzy by kickoff, convinced their lower-division foe had disrespected them.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner said Indiana State players taunted the Gophers during their ritual “Victory Walk” entrance across the TCF Bank Stadium field. Leidner said the Sycamores were “dancing on our ‘M’ ” at midfield before pregame warmups.
According to Leidner, Indiana State coach Mike Sanford also said the Gophers “were like an upper-level D I-AA team.”
“So we all kind of took that to heart,” Leidner said. “We really wanted to come out there and show them what Big Ten football was all about.”
Mission accomplished. Leidner matched a career high with four touchdown passes, Kobe McCrary rushed for 176 yards and the Gophers cruised to a 58-28 victory.
It was the highest scoring output for the Gophers since they hung 63 points on Indiana in 2006, and gave them the kind of comfortable nonconference victory that evaded them last year.
But afterward, no one could pinpoint that Sanford “upper-level D I-AA” quote. It would have been out of character for Sanford, who’d called it an “honor” to come play a Big Ten opponent.
“I think it was a radio interview,” Leidner said.
And how did word spread?
“Not really sure, but it just did,” senior receiver Drew Wolitarsky said. “Self-created maybe.”
Wolitarsky and Leidner both chuckled. At 2-0, they had reason to feel good, with an open date next week heading into their Sept. 24 home game against Colorado State.
The Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) has pulled several upsets over Football Bowl Subdivision teams in recent years. But the Gophers put this FCS opponent away early, building a 35-7 lead by halftime.
“Just want to say, very disappointed,” Sanford said. “We believed we were going to win the game, and we expected to win. I can’t get up in the morning if I don’t believe that. We got ourselves behind, and the things kept snowpiling.”
Indiana State (1-1) was coming off a 41-25 victory over Butler. The Sycamores capitalized on four turnovers in that game, and the Gophers didn’t turn the ball over once.
Minnesota also enjoyed great field position. The Sycamores had three shanked punts that went 18 yards apiece, and a cartoonish onside kick that went only 3 yards.
“Yeah, that was actually a miscommunication,” Sanford said. “I’d rather not go into all the details, but that was not intended to be an onside kick.”
Even with a big lead, Gophers coach Tracy Claeys still kept most starters in well into the fourth quarter. Leidner completed 20 of 30 passes for 295 yards before Conor Rhoda replaced him with 11:45 to go.
“I think you need to play three quarters,” Claeys said. “That’s just my opinion, this early in the season. Before, we’ve taken kids out at half with big leads, and there’s a conditioning issue and everything else that comes into play.”
Leidner’s numbers would have been better if not for at least four dropped passes. Wolitarsky led the Gophers with eight receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Tyler Johnson and Brian Smith also added touchdown catches.
But Claeys was still roaming the sideline benches, prodding his defense after the third quarter, when it was 48-21. Indiana State had reeled off back-to-back touchdown drives against several Gophers starters.
“I was upset,” Claey said. “I just didn’t think we were playing with as much energy on defense as we needed to play with. That’s unacceptable, and every now and then, they need a reminder.”
Claeys said he was pleased with the offense, other than the early sloppiness. The Gophers had three false start penalties and two dropped passes on their opening drive. But Leidner bailed them out with three big third-down completions, then hit Wolitarsky for a 20-yard touchdown.
After that, new coordinator Jay Johnson’s offense hummed, without the hiccups that showed in the season opening 30-23 win over Oregon State.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth after last week,” Leidner said. “We felt like we could have done some things better. To come out in practice and prepare extremely hard, I thought it really carried over into the game.”
The Gophers had their own motivation. Real or imagined, Indiana State’s pregame posture only added to it.