It’s almost sunset on Leidner Island. The shadows are growing, and there’s a definite chill in the air.
This was a lonely place at first, just a small collection of Mitch Leidner loyalists who thought the longtime Gophers quarterback faced too much undue criticism.
They started a Twitter account, @Leidner_Island, which grew to more than 800 followers. They made T-shirts and sold them from the tailgate lots.
After one September game, they received a surprise visitor. The quarterback dropped by to thank them for the support.
But after five years with the Gophers and countless highs and lows, Leidner is approaching the end of his college career. His final home game comes Saturday against Northwestern.
The islanders plan a big send-off.
“It’s been up and down, we all know that,” said Jason Faver, who helps run the @Leidner_Island account. “He’s just a great person and a great leader who takes a lot of heat.”
Faver and three others hatched the Twitter idea after listening to KFAN (100.3-FM) last season, when many fans wanted Leidner benched. Gophers sideline reporter Justin Gaard explained why Leidner wasn’t all to blame — beat-up offensive line, etc. — and it became part of the lingo, that Gaard was alone, in a sea of critics, on Leidner Island.
One year later, the Lakeville native hasn’t had the senior season many envisioned, especially after ESPN’s Todd McShay projected him as a first-round pick last May in his “Way-too-early 2017 NFL Mock Draft.”
Leidner’s last touchdown pass came Oct. 1 at Penn State. Since then, he has thrown six interceptions, including a critical fourth-quarter pick into the end zone at Happy Valley, and last week’s red zone backbreaker at Nebraska.
On the last drive against the Cornhuskers, Leidner made four key completions. He appeared sacked on one third down but somehow got a pass to Rodney Smith, moving the chains. But then came the interception, after Leidner locked in on favorite target Drew Wolitarsky and threw into double coverage.
Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen summed it up: “You had the good Leidner and the bad Leidner — all in one series.”
Throw in Leidner’s 13-for-33, two-interception performance in a 14-7 loss to Iowa, and many fans have spent the season dwelling on the bad Leidner.
Aside from his TD/interception ratio, his other passing stats are actually similar to last season — completion percentage (58.9 compared to 59.5) and passer rating (119.9 compared to 121.1). He’s also running the ball better after offseason foot surgery (3.45 yards per attempt compared to 2.42).
Coach Tracy Claeys points to the team’s overall numbers. The Gophers are averaging 31.8 points per game, compared to 22.5 last season. They aren’t passing as much in the red zone, but Leidner (eight rushing touchdowns), Smith (14) and Shannon Brooks (five) keep running to pay dirt.
The Gophers have scored touchdowns on 68.9 percent of their trips to the red zone this year, up from 52.7 percent in 2015.
“We’re better, by far … there’s no comparison,” Claeys said. “Yeah, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re a lot better on offense, and [Leidner] has a lot to do with that.”
His highlight reel isn’t fancy. After throwing 14 touchdown passes last season, Leidner has five this season, and four came against Indiana State.
That drop-off has surprised Leidner “a little bit,” he said. “But it’s just kind of the way our offense is, and we all kind of embrace that. Once we get into that red zone, we want to be able to run the ball down people’s throats, and I think we’ve done a great job.”
Wolitarsky leads the Gophers with three touchdown catches.
“I think of us as a chess board,” the senior receiver said. “Whatever piece we are in that game we’ve got to be. So sometimes Rodney [Smith] — he’s the queen, he does everything. Sometimes we’ve got to be the rooks, the bishops, doing our part to win the game to end in a final checkmate.”
With two regular-season games and a bowl trip remaining, the 7-3 Gophers can reach eight wins for the third time in four years. That hasn’t happened during a four-year span at Minnesota since 1903-06, when the Gophers won 14, 13, 10 and four games.
Leidner has been this run’s central figure, going 22-16 as a starter.
“I’ve got a very positive attitude on how I want to treat this week and the rest of the season,” he said. “I’ve just got a lot of excitement to get back out there with the guys and practice, and just really have a lot of fun these last couple of weeks.”
Northwestern poses another opportunity. The Wildcats have the Big Ten’s sixth-best rushing defense but rank dead last in the conference in passing defense, allowing 260.5 yards per game. Can Leidner turn that into a Gophers advantage?
If so, his friends from the tailgate lots will be ready. The sun might be fading, with the chill winds blowing, but there’s still time for a Leidner Island luau.