P.J.R.: Kill and Gophers sitting sweet at quarterback
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Gophers are 4-0 after the non-conference schedule and this time, as opposed to the 4-0 of 2012, optimism is permitted.
OK, last season's four wins did include beating Syracuse and quarterback Ryan Nassib at the on-campus stadium, but the overall non-conference work has been considerably more impressive in 2013.
You never gave serious thought to the possibility of winning four, five Big Tens and actually accomplishing something in 2012. One reason for that was the fact quarterback MarQueis Gray had lost speed as a 250-pounder and he remained a dreadful thrower.
Halfway through his second Minnesota season, coach Jerry Kill went to freshman Philip Nelson. He wasn't ready to be a Big Ten starter, but Nelson was better at it than Gray.
Those seven starts made Nelson a better player for 2013, which might not be enough to get his job back from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner. Nelson missed the second half vs. Western Illinois and was out against San Jose State with a hamstring issue.
Leidner, 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, has been a monster keeping the ball on the Gophers' bread-and-butter option play, and his throwing to mostly open receivers has been satisfactory.
Kill said after the 43-24 victory that Nelson was his starter "if he's 100 percent.'' On Sunday, he again was working that angle -- that the Gophers would be better off with Leidner at 100 percent than Nelson at 80 percent.
You get the impression that the Gophers want to go with Leidner vs. Iowa in Saturday's Big Ten opener, and might tell Nelson that he's not 100 percent, even if the sophomore says that he's fully healed.
What's fact is the punchline Kill used on his quarterback situation after Saturday's win:
"We're in about as good a situation as you could be right now in that position.''
That's certainly the case when you look at the quarterback challenges facing a share of the eight teams on the Big Ten schedule. There's a very good chance the Gophers already beat the best QB they are going to face in San Jose State's David Fales.
IOWA: The Hawkeyes are starting sophomore Jake Rudock, who didn't appear for a play last season as an active member of the roster. Rudock has been OK as a passer. He offers no threat as a runner.
MICHIGAN: Devin Gardner broke out as a quarterback in a victory over the Gophers last season. He received a lot of publicity entering this season. He can run, but so far he's thrown for seven TDs and eight interceptions. Over the the last two weeks, he's been as unimpressive as his teammates in narrow victories over Akron and UConn.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats have the best quarterback combination in the league with junior Trevor Siemian as the thrower and senior Kane Colter as an OK thrower and an elusive runner. This is the team that proves a two-quarterback system can be an advantage in a spread/option offense.
NEBRASKA: Taylor Martinez is finally a senior. He's overrated and there's no viable backup.
INDIANA: Sophomore Tre Roberson was supposed to be back from injury to make the Hoosiers more dangerous. He hasn't shown much so far and has been behind another sophomore, Nate Sudfeld, a thrower and not a runner. It doesn't help that Indiana's defense continues to stink. The Hoosiers were completely outclassed by Missouri on Saturday.
PENN STATE: Christian Hackenberg, a top national recruit as a pocket passer, stuck with Penn State despite the NCAA's outrageous sanctions against the program. He's starting as a true freshman and was OK the first three weeks ... and then a dreadful 13 for 35 vs. Kent State on Saturday.
WISCONSIN: Joel Stave can't even look graceful kneeling down to set up a game-winning field goal. And Bart Houston, the big recruit from California, has to be getting restless as he goes without seeing the field as a redshirt freshman. Of course, whether the coach is Alvarez, Bielema or Andersen, quality QB play is optional with the Badgers' tradition of tremendous running backs and offensive line play.
MICHIGAN STATE: Coach Mark Dantonio made a firm commitment to sophomore quarterback Connor Cook after starting Andrew Maxwell in the opener. Then, he benched Cook in favor of Maxwell for the final drive of Saturday's extra ugly, 17-13 loss Notre Dame. The Spartans have a stout defense and a stench on offense ... especially at quarterback.
The Gophers can win four or five of these games. Seriously. And one of the best reasons for this should be effective play at quarterback, whether it's Leidner, Nelson or both.
--PATRICK JAMES REUSSE.