Gophers overwhelm Eastern Illinois to win nonconference opener
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Mitch Leidner ran for two scores and threw a touchdown pass to Donovahn Jones, leading Minnesota to a season-opening 42-20 victory over Eastern Illinois on Thursday night.
Leidner finished 9 for 17 with 144 yards, David Cobb carried 14 times for 71 yards and the defense delivered a punishing performance to overwhelm the Panthers, a perennial FCS power facing the Gophers for the first time.
Jalen Whitlow, a transfer from Kentucky, went 14 for 23 passing for 110 yards and rushed 19 times for 77 yards. He had an interception, though, and took two sacks on a mistake-marred night for the Panthers.
Eric Murray blocked a punt near the goal line for the Gophers that Logan Hutton grabbed for a three-touchdown lead.
Minnesota's Berkley Edwards, the brother of former Michigan and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards, ran for two late scores in his first career game.
Leidner, a sophomore who's the unquestioned starting quarterback this season after making four starts during a sporadic job share last year with Philip Nelson, started slowly. Over Minnesota's first five possessions, Leidner completed just 3 of 8 passes for 24 yards while taking two sacks and losing a fumble.
He was able to scramble in for a third-and-goal score from 2 yards out during that span, set up by the second botched snap of the first quarter by the Panthers that Alex Keith fell on at the 5. Then Leidner found a rhythm on a nine-play, 90-yard drive he punctuated with the 35-yard touchdown toss to Jones. Freshman safety Will Vails gambled for the interception, barely missing, and Jones pivoted into open field for an easy path to the end zone.
The Gophers held out injured sophomore wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl at the end of last season, thinning a position group already filled with unproven players. There is plenty of athleticism there, though, with Jones, a sophomore originally recruited as a quarterback, and junior K.J. Maye.
To improve on their 4-4 finish in the Big Ten, the Gophers are going to need to be better than last in the league in passing yards, so there's clearly a lot of work left for Leidner and his teammates this fall.
The defense is further along. Keith, who started at defensive end in place of the injured Michael Amaefula, was credited with a sack and two recovered fumbles to highlight the kind of production the Gophers have come to expect on that side of the ball.
That goes for special teams, too, where Murray sprinted off the edge and stretched out to deflect the punt and send the ball straight up into the air. Hutton, a senior wide receiver, snagged it for his first career touchdown.
The Panthers went 12-2 last season while leading all FCS teams in yards and points, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round NFL draft pick by New England, and head coach Dino Babers, who moved up a level to take the job at Bowling Green, are gone.
First-time head coach Kim Dameron brought in Whitlow, one of five transfers from FBS programs, with plans to platoon the junior with senior Andrew Manley.
Manley passed for 288 yards and three scores here in 2011 to lead New Mexico State to an upset over the Gophers in head coach Jerry Kill's first home game with the program. Thursday night, Manley finished 18 for 34 for 200 yards, running for a short touchdown and throwing two other scores in the fourth quarter.
After opening last season with a 40-19 win at San Diego State, however, this hope of another upset of an FBS opponent fell well short. Not only did the Panthers lose the fumble at their own 5, they gave one away at the Minnesota 4. After Leidner coughed up the ball at his 28 in the first quarter, Nick Bruno's 41-yard field-goal try was wide right.© The Associated Press