Sandell: Leidner and passing game show up, but have a ways yet to go
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The end result was right in line with what Minnesota Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner was looking for.
With an impressive boost from a defense that picked up three turnovers, Leidner helped guide Minnesota to 35 straight points and an eventual 42-20 season-opening rout of Eastern Illinois on Thursday night.
But it wasn't always easy going for Leidner.
From the moment he emerged as the Gophers' clear-cut starting quarterback in spring practice earlier this year, Leidner has been armed with a notably confident and calm demeanor, embracing the pressures that come with his heightened role.
However, an unexpected rush of nerves caught up to him when he jogged out with the offense for the first drive.
"I wasn't nervous at all during the week or even in warm-ups, but then I was like, 'Holy cow, it's finally here," Leidner said afterward, finally able to relax and flash a slight grin.
In the run up to the season, the development of the Gophers' pass offense has been under close scrutiny. One of the primary questions facing the Gophers this season is whether or not they can find the production in the pass game they need to instill the offensive balance they lacked last season.
And early on in Thursday's game, the offense looked eerily similar to the unit that ranked last in Big Ten in passing a year ago.
Three possessions in, Leidner and the offense had managed only 19 yards, unable to get past their own 47-yard line. The Gophers opened with passes on four of their first 10 plays, completing only one - a two-yard dump to freshman running back Berkley Edwards - and giving up a sack before Leidner could get off another attempt. Leidner looked rattled and unsure of himself.
But slowly, Leidner and Co. found their footing. Gifted by a fumble recovery by defensive end Alex Keith on Eastern Illinois' five-yard line, the Gophers running backs stalled on consecutive plays before Leidner took off on his own for the first touchdown of the game.
It was a needed pressure release for Leidner.
"I think it was just the run, getting my legs going a little bit, have a little contact," Leidner said. "That's a big thing that always gets me going."
Still, as the midpoint of the second quarter approached, Leidner was 2-of-7 for only 14 yards through the air.
"Hats off to (Eastern Illinois) defensively," Leidner said. "Every time we came out they would be in a different defensive structure. That can be tough for us as an offense and an offensive line to pick all the different things up. We were just trying to see what would work, for the most part.
But after his sluggish start, with the run game starting to get into motion, Leidner whipped off five straight completions for 86 yards. The nerves appeared long gone as he found sophomore receiver Donovahn Jones for a 35-yard touchdown catch.
Ultimately, Leidner ended his night 9-of-17 for 144 yards, three completions of 25-yards or more, and oversaw four offensive scoring drives, including two rushing touchdowns of his own. In total, the Gophers put up 338 yards, 182 of which came on the ground.
Head coach Jerry Kill sounded pleased postgame with Leidner and the offense, writing off some of the early issues as to be expected in an opening game.
Kill is right to insist caution be shown when analyzing Thursday's opener. Despite the group's ability to rally for a convincing victory, the offense showed it still has a way to go to find the consistent production it has lacked since the start of the Kill era, especially in the pass game.
Patience must be shown with Leidner and the passing game as a whole, and the coaching staff is providing it. That said, progress needs to keep coming at a steady pace. The Gophers won't be able to rely solely on their defense and strengths running the ball. Balance is required. How the offense responds next week against Middle Tennessee State, specifically passing-wise, will be a telling sign of where the Gophers are at in their development.
Quick observations of the pass game
- It's obvious playmakers are still needed at receiver. Donovahn Jones was the only wide receiver to register a catch, going 1-of-3 for 45 yards and a touchdown. Senior Isaac Fruechte (0-of-2) and Logan Hutton (0-of-1) were the only other wide receivers to be targeted.
The absence of sophomore receiver Drew Wolitarsky certainly didn't help. Wolitarsky, who has been used a complement to Jones' explosive athleticism, missed Thursday's game with a shoulder injury. The Gophers can't afford to go too long without Wolitarsky in the game.
- The Gophers went eight pass attempts before throwing to tight end Maxx Williams - Minnesota's top receiving threat last year. When he finally got the ball, Williams pulled off two of the offense's best plays of the night, including a 25-yard reception where he hurtled over a defender.
Williams' remains one of the Gophers' best playmakers, but it's obvious they have to find a way to spread out the offensive load as he begins to gain more and more attention from opposing defenses.
- Kill talked up junior receiver K.J. Maye as a critical piece of the passing attack throughout fall camp, but the Gophers were unable to get him the ball in Game 1 - a point Kill bemoaned later on. Maye's speed and agility opens up opportunities for the Gophers, especially in the middle of the field. It's key that Minnesota finds ways to create chances for him.