Mitch Leidner helps spark 'U' offense after injury to Philip Nelson
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner had been waiting for his chance.
He finally got it on Saturday, but not exactly under prime circumstances.
Leidner was forced to take over the Minnesota Gophers' offense after sophomore starter Philip Nelson went down with a right hamstring injury in the second quarter of a struggle-filled game, which required a late resurgence from the Gophers resurgence to fend off FCS Western Illinois 29-12.
Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Leidner, trying to get a handle on his abruptly heightened role, was approached by junior running back David Cobb with a message.
"Cobb told me on the sidelines, he was like, 'You've got that opportunity, take advantage of it,'" Leidner said.
In turn, Leidner settled in and capitalized.
Having seen action only in the waning minutes of the Gophers' first two games, Leidner fought early nerves and inconsistencies to produce a largely impressive performance in the first sustained minutes of his collegiate career.
Nelson was in the midst of a 12-yard run when he was hit awkwardly on a Western Illinois tackle, and limped to the sidelines. Without much hesitation, Leidner came running on to the field and quickly started yelling out play calls to what had suddenly become his offense.
Leidner was in for only one play before the offense stalled out for the third straight time since the opening kickoff.
But that dubious stretch ended on his first full drive
Taking off on his own seven times, Leidner and the offense finally showed life in the latter minutes of the first half, moving 71 yards downfield for a touchdown that pushed the score to 7-6 at the break.
At halftime, Nelson was ruled out for the remainder of the afternoon, meaning if the Gophers were going to hold off the disaster of losing to an FCS opponent they would need Leidner to fill the void.
For nearly the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, it appeared as if the Gophers were caught in a downward spiral they could not escape. A failed four-play drive gave way to an 80-yard, three-play romp by Western Illinois that dropped Minnesota into a 12-7 hole.
Sitting on the Leathernecks' eight-yard line on the following possession, Leidner had put the Gophers in position to make a firm rebuttal. But when he took off, desperately trying to get into the endzone, the ball popped loose and recovered cleanly by Western Illinois.
To Leidner's credit and the credit of his offense, which has struggled to avoid extended periods of ineffectiveness, the Gophers responded when they had to.
Leidner and tailbacks David Cobb and Rodrick Williams resurrected the "U" run attack, combining for 154 second half rushing yards and three touchdowns (Cobb 2; Williams 1) in the second half. As a result, the Gophers turned a game that was too-close-for-comfort into a 22-point swing in less than eight minutes of game time.
"It was a good feeling to get out there. Helps that I've got these two running backs here next to me to give the ball to," Leidner said, pointing to Cobb and Williams in the post-game media room.
"Definitely takes some pressure of the quarterback. ... We started off real slow but towards the end there started picking up."
Even more so than Nelson, Leidner has showed no resistance to tucking the ball and running downfield. Of the 43 snaps the Lakeville, Minn. native has taken this year, he has run on 22 of them, including 17 carries for 64 yards on Saturday.
Leidner attempted only eight of the Gophers' season-low 12 passes, but completed seven of those for 105 yards.
Nelson, who was in the 10th start of his career did some light jogging and tried to loosen up his hamstring on a stationary bike shortly after the injury occurred. Nelson appeared to be walking without any visible signs of struggle, but Claeys said the team "saw no sense in taking the risk" of putting him back in.
That didn't mean Nelson didn't stick close by Leidner and the offense, dispensing any advice he had.
"Philip helped me out a lot and I really appreciate it," Leidner said. Sometimes when you're out there and you're in the heat of the moment, sometimes you aren't seeing what's happening in coverages."