Sandell: Mitch Leidner validates Gophers QB switch in loss to Michigan
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Even in a loss, one in which Michigan put the Minnesota Gophers away, 42-13, with a lopsided second half Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner did enough to prove why he should remain in a starting role going forward.
In the absence of coach Jerry Kill, who did not make the trip to Ann Arbor after suffering a seizure Saturday morning, the Gophers made the move to bench sophomore Philip Nelson. In turn, they handed Leidner the reigns of the offense for his second career start, this one coming inside the hostile confines of Michigan's Big House.
Injuries did not factor into the decision to roll out Leidner over Nelson, an 11-game starter, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told reporters afterwards.
For all of the obvious shortcomings of the "U" offense, Leidner validated the coaching staff's call.
The start and end to Leidner's afternoon were marred by critical turnovers (a fumble on the Gophers' first drive and a late interception). He did what he could to make up for the miscues in the time in-between.
Leidner completed 14 of his 21 passes for 145 yards, missing his intended target only once in his first 11 attempts. His tailbacks were held to 70 yards rushing, but he found varying success on the ground, totaling 66 yards on 18 attempts.
Leidner's claim of top billing at quarterback arguably should have been set one week earlier.
When Nelson went down with a strained right hamstring in the first half of the Gophers' third game of the year against Western Illinois, Leidner impressed as a replacement. After leading a second half rally over the Leathernecks, one week later he unloaded in historic fashion in his first career start by rushing for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a trouncing of San Jose State.
But when Nelson's hamstring had healed, Leidner found himself standing back on the sidelines last week as rival Iowa easily dispensed with the Gophers in a discouraging. The move to stick with Nelson throughout the Gophers' offensively challenged outing drew a bounty criticism after the sophomore stumbled through a disastrous shaky performance.
Kill later defended his decision to stand by Nelson and continued to back him throughout the week. Although Kill insisted both quarterbacks would play a role all season, his support of Nelson seem to indicate a change in starters wasn't likely.
It was obviously the type of smokescreen Kill covets.
By going with Leidner on Saturday, not only did it concede, to a degree, that not putting him in for at least one or two series against Iowa was a mistake, but it also gave the redshirt freshman another audition to earn the starting spot outright.
Leidner followed through by weathering an unquestionably difficult situation in above adequate fashion. It was the strong performance he needed to warrant keeping his name atop the depth chart.
As it has been for the last two weeks, quarterback play is surely to be key a talking point during the Gophers' upcoming bye week and in the lead-up to their Oct. 19 face-off at Northwestern. But at this point, to pull Leidner out of the spot again when they make the trip to Evanston, Ill. would be a tough move to explain.