Gophers are passing less, scoring more

Minnesota only has six passing touchdowns all season.

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is tackled during the Gophers' game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016.

Maddy Fox, Daily File

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is tackled during the Gophers’ game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016.

Mike Hendrickson

In his senior season, quarterback Mitch Leidner is handing the ball off more and passing less.

The offense is thriving as a result.

“When you’ve got great running backs like Rodney [Smith] and Shannon [Brooks], that’s just what comes with having two great backs like that,” Leidner said. “I think our O-line has a great mentality being able to move guys inside the red zone, and it’s been working for us, so it’s just something that happens and everyone respects that.”

It’s been a while since the Gophers’ offense scored at such a high rate.

Minnesota is averaging 31.8 points a game through 10 games, which would be its highest mark since 2005 — even if there was a slight drop off in its final three contests.

So why has it been five games since a Gophers quarterback has thrown a touchdown?

“It’s just kind of the way our offense is, and we all kind of embrace that,” Leidner said. “Once we get into that red zone, we want to be able to run the football … down people’s throats.”

The Gophers have 38 touchdowns this season and have already surpassed the2015 total by four with three games left.

Smith, Brooks and Leidner have combined for 27 of those touchdowns on the ground.

Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said he doesn’t really pay attention to those numbers, but the team does play to its strengths.

“Two of our most talented guys on our football team are Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks,” Johnson said. “I just have a lot of faith in those guys.”

Last season, Minnesota ran the ball on 51.1 percent of its offensive plays. That number is up 12 percent in 2016.

Johnson said Leidner has adjusted to the change well, pointing to his eight rushing touchdowns this season after having six last year.

“Sometimes that’s hard for a fifth-year senior quarterback,” Johnson said. “It’s always sometimes more [fun] to throw it and things of that nature, but we felt like we’ve been doing what we needed to do to be successful.”

Passing attempts and touchdowns per pass attempt are down this season.

The Gophers currently average one touchdown every 42.8 pass attempts, compared to 28.5 in 2015.

Head coach Tracy Claeys pointed to Minnesota’s improved red zone touchdown percentage from last year to explain the lack of passing touchdowns, as the Gophers have been running a lot in the red zone. The Gophers’ touchdown percentage in the red zone is up about 16 percent from last season.

He said Leidner is still a big part of the offense, even with his smaller role.

“Offensively, when you look at [the numbers], we’re better by far, and [Mitch is] a big part of that,” Claeys said. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re a lot better on offense.”