Gophers blow past Eastern Illinois in season opener

Mitch Leidner and Berkley Edwards each ran for two touchdowns.

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner hands the ball to running back David Cobb on Thursday evening against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner hands the ball to running back David Cobb on Thursday evening against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

For Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner, the script flipped Thursday night.

Minnesota opened its season with a midweek home game under the lights for the second consecutive year.

But instead of being the backup quarterback coming into the game during garbage time with little pressure on his shoulders, Leidner was under center from the get-go.

Chris Streveler relieved Leidner in the second half once the Gophers’ 42-20 victory was well in hand, just like Leidner did in last year’s opener.

Minnesota blew the game open in the second half after a slow start.

Leidner’s first two passes were incomplete. The third went for just 2 yards. The next play, he was sacked and he fumbled the ball.

“Definitely a lot of nerves out there,” Leidner said. “We were just trying to see what would work.”

After one more empty series, the Lakeville, Minn., native finally felt like himself on the field. A play broke down, and Leidner tucked the ball, running 2 yards untouched into the end zone.

The Gophers took a 7-0 lead and didn’t look back. Neither did Leidner.

“Getting my legs moving a little bit, have a little contact — that’s always a big thing that gets me into the game,” he said.

Early in the fourth quarter, Leidner rushed for another touchdown. But this time, three Eastern Illinois defenders met the brawny 6-foot-4-inch quarterback at the goal line, and Leidner lowered his helmet to squeeze through.

The Gophers took a 28-0 lead after Ryan Santoso knocked in the extra point, but Leidner taking shots is probably the last thing his coaches want. Even so, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill praised his quarterback for staying low.

“As long as you don’t stand up, you are a lot better off,” Kill said. “He carried it, but he didn’t carry it much. A quarterback will always have to take care of himself. It doesn’t matter if you are in the National Football League or what — they are going to have to scramble and do things. I thought he played much lower than a year ago.”

Leidner ran the ball seven times Thursday, which pales in comparison to the 24 carries he amassed in his first career start against San Jose State last fall.

Minnesota worked throughout the offseason to keep Leidner from running excessively in order for him to stay healthy, but at times, it’s still hard for him to stay in the pocket.

“It’s different. It’s a different style of play for me, but it’s something I’ve done in the past in high school,” Leidner said.

Redshirt freshman running back Berkley Edwards capped off the next series with a 1-yard touchdown run. Leidner sat the rest of the game, and with Streveler at quarterback, Edwards ripped off a 42-yard touchdown run.

“[We] have to continue to find ways to get him the ball,” Kill said.

The offense sputtered at first and gained momentum later on, but the defense was nearly perfect from the opening snap.

Junior safety Antonio Johnson recorded seven tackles and an interception. Eric Murray blanketed receivers throughout the night and blocked a punt that Logan Hutton recovered in the end zone for six points.

Murray said Eastern Illinois had been giving the Gophers different looks, so special teams coach Jay Sawvel called a punt block play.

Minnesota’s first unit didn’t allow a single point in the contest, but Eastern Illinois scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Gophers’ reserves.

Junior defensive lineman Alex Keith had a coming-out party, recovering two fumbles and recording a sack to go with four tackles. But his night was cut short due to a leg injury.

Minnesota’s defensive line depth has taken a serious hit, with Keith, Yoshoub Timms and Scott Ekpe all nursing injuries. Freshman defensive linemen Gaelin Elmore, Andrew Stelter and Steven Richardson all played Thursday and could be relied upon sooner than expected.

“I’m concerned. Nobody has a ton of depth,” Kill said. “We will see what happens, but it is a concern, and we will just put the next one in.”

 

View Storify of the game here