Mitch Leidner grew up a little Saturday. He also won’t have to hear people tell him how terrible he played this week, which is always nice.
The narrative changed, if only for one game, as the Gophers quarterback showed poise when the situation absolutely demanded it.
Leidner played like a winner in crunch time.
He wasn’t perfect. Or always on target. He nearly threw a game-ending interception that would have changed the entire tone of this column and brought him another helping of criticism.
And let’s be honest, the opposition was Ohio, not Ohio State. The Gophers shouldn’t need a drive in the final 2½ minutes to squeak out a homecoming victory against a MAC school.
But that was their reality thanks to a sloppy and error-filled performance that raised even more doubt about the Gophers entering Big Ten play.
But at least their quarterback won’t be topics A, B and C after Leidner guided a fourth-quarter rally in a too-close-for-comfort 27-24 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I never lose confidence in myself,” Leidner said. “I’ve been a competitive kid my entire life and at no point was I going to back down from any type of competition.”
Leidner has become an easy target for criticism because of his shaky play. Deserved criticism, too. That’s just a fact of life for a major-college quarterback.
But he also deserves credit for demonstrating some inner toughness. He showed it in the fourth quarter certainly, and also in dealing with calls for his benching.
Leidner guided the offense to 10 points in the final quarter on drives of 13 and 11 plays.
He made some nice throws, missed a few others, but the result really was all that mattered on this day.
The Gophers and their beleaguered quarterback desperately needed a win and reason to smile.
Leidner needed it perhaps more than anyone, with the possible exception of coach Jerry Kill, who had a rough week in public relations.
A week ago, Leidner called Kill and promised to play better after the offense looked clueless in a three-point victory over Kent State.
Another three-point victory over an allegedly inferior opponent from the same conference shouldn’t ignite a groundswell of euphoria, but the offense has something to build on now.
“I bet you could tell that we were having fun out there,” Leidner said.
Leidner completed 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 264 yards. The Gophers also rushed for 204 yards on the backs of their new freshman tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
This is how the Gophers offense should function. Run the ball effectively and give Leidner high-percentage passes that he can complete.
That was their script for the most part, except for a few ridiculous fade passes. Leidner’s touch is like me on the dance floor: not very smooth. So why ask him to execute those difficult passes?
The rest was mostly positive. Now the Gophers must prove they can move the ball against better competition, starting at Northwestern.
Their fourth quarter should give them some confidence.
A mental mistake by Brooks on a kickoff put the Gophers at their own 6-yard line early in the quarter, needing a touchdown to pull ahead. The likelihood of that scenario seemed close to nil given the way their offense has functioned this season.
But Leidner completed passes of 24 and 29 yards to a pair of freshman receivers, Rashad Still and Isaiah Gentry.
He added three other completions that moved the Gophers inside the 10. He overthrew Gentry on a third-down pass, settling for a field goal.
The offense got the ball back at the 22-yard line, trailing 24-20 with 2:36.
Again, not exactly an ideal scenario.
Leidner completed four of six passes for 42 yards to set up Brooks’ go-ahead touchdown run in the final minute.
“Everyone is going to make three or four mistakes playing quarterback,” Kill said. “But the bottom line is, the kid finds a way to win. That should carry on going into Big Ten play.”
Leidner has enjoyed nice moments like this in the past. Fourth quarter at Nebraska comes to mind.
His inconsistency remains maddening because he fluctuates so wildly. He overthrew three receivers and nearly was intercepted on the final drive Saturday. And he put some clutch throws on the money.
It’s a constant battle between good Mitch and bad Mitch.
We’ve seen plenty of the bad side. The good Leidner emerged when the situation required it.
The young man needed that.