Through four games, Mitch Leidner is playing the best football of his career after going through left foot surgery in the offseason. But the Gophers quarterback was not pleased with his overall play through three games, despite going 3-0, and he was extremely disappointed after the team lost its Big Ten opener, falling 29-26 in overtime at Penn State on Saturday.

Leidner has a 62.9 completion percentage and 134.5 passer rating through four games. Both would be career highs if he maintained those numbers the rest of the season.

But at Penn State, he had his worst game of the season, going 24-for-40 for 241 yards with one touchdown and one interception. That interception especially hurt, coming late in the second half in the end zone as the team was driving to take the lead in a tie game.

“It hurts when you have high expectations like we did,” Leidner said. “But at the same time, Sunday morning we wake up, the sun comes up, and we have to prepare for Iowa and get ready to go this week.”

The Gophers as a whole had some very good plays; they won the time of possession battle in regulation 36:49 to 23:11; and had 31 first downs compared to the Nittany Lions’ 19. But they also committed three more penalties and committed the game’s lone turnover.

Leidner said the Gophers recognized those issues, but he added they have to get past them quickly.

“It’s a team game, and things happen throughout a game, it’s just how you respond,” he said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to come out on top against Penn State, but we’re going to keep moving forward. We know how much talent we have on this team and we’re going to keep competing and working hard.”

Does Leidner feel that the team didn’t play to its talent level Saturday?

“I think everyone is a little bit frustrated, but I think everybody knows we prepare hard week in and week out, and how much work we put in this offseason, and to carry it over to this season,” the senior said. “I think everybody realizes we have to get a lot better, and hopefully this week we’ll be able to bounce back now.

“On Sunday we had a team meeting [on how poorly we played], but you know now, it’s all water under the bridge and it’s focusing on Iowa.”

A must-win game

Saturday’s home game against Iowa is as close to a must-win for both teams as you will find this early in the season.

The Hawkeyes started the year ranked No. 17 after going 12-2 last year, but home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern have ruined a promising season. They are 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference.

Whichever team loses can pretty much consider itself out of the running to win the Big Ten Western Division.

Leidner said his main concern is keeping the offense going, because he thinks the defense will fare just fine.

“We have to execute. We can’t kick ourselves by getting dumb penalties or anything like that,” he said. “We just have to play good defensively, I’m not worried about our defense, but offensively we have to play sound and execute.”

Leidner is 1-2 in his career against the Hawkeys and he said the team is ready for the atmosphere this weekend.

“No question, we’re excited about it,” he said. “It’s very important, especially when you’re playing a big border rivalry like this game, and how much hatred there is between the two teams and two states. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder. It’s just going to come down to who executes and puts the most points on the board.”

Finding positives

Leidner might become the first Gophers quarterback to be selected in the NFL draft since Craig Curry was drafted in the eighth round by the Miami Dolphins in 1972. But how does he feel about his play?

“You know, I think there’s always room for improvement, but I would say it’s probably better than it was last year at this time,” Leidner said. “We just have to keep getting better and concentrate on getting better each week and let my preparation take care of that.”

One thing Leidner thinks is going to continue to get better is his connection with his receivers.

“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “Each week they’re getting better, I’m getting more confidence in those guys. They have good size, good ability and hopefully they just keep getting better throughout the season.”

Friendly rivals

Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs and Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson have been playing football together and against each other since their freshman years of high school in Maryland. They both went to ACC schools, with Diggs going to Maryland before it joined the Big Ten and Johnson attending Wake Forest.

The Houston Chronicle talked to Johnson about playing against Diggs.

“Anytime you get a chance to play against somebody you know, it’s always a friendly competition,” Johnson said. “We compete against each other, and we enjoy that. He’s off to a great start. He’s out there doing his thing, getting open and catching passes. He looks like an explosive player on tape.”

Jottings

• The Texans will be looking for their first victory over the Vikings on Sunday; they are 0-3 all-time. This will be Houston’s second game against the NFC North this season after defeating the Bears 23-14 in Week 1.

• While the Texans are without injured defensive star J.J. Watt, they will return former Ohio State receiver Braxton Miller, who has missed the past two games.

• The Gophers will have to be aware of Iowa returner Desmond King, who had 162 return yards (77 on punt returns, 85 on kickoffs) last weekend in the Hawkeyes’ 38-31 loss to Northwestern.

• While the University of Minnesota has a search committee to replace fired wrestling coach J Robinson — if he doesn’t proceed with a lawsuit, win it and regain his job — interim coach Brandon Eggum is doing everything Robinson did, including recruiting. Every member of the wrestling team, including anyone involved in the recent investigations around the program, is in school. … Robinson was called on last month to be the keynote speaker at the WIBN North Carolina Kickoff Dinner for the Wrestlers in Business Network, despite his situation with the Gophers.

• Talk about the highest-paid former Gophers athletes in professional sports, defenseman Erik Johnson will be paid $42 million on a seven-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche, rising from $3.75 million this year to $6 million for the next seven years.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com