College football: Mixed reviews on Leidner
By Andy GrederSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- ESPN college football analyst Brian Griese disagrees with the negative sentiment swirling around Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner. "It's not always sexy, but they won eight games a year ago," s...
By Andy Greder
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - ESPN college football analyst Brian Griese disagrees with the negative sentiment swirling around Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner.
“It’s not always sexy, but they won eight games a year ago,” said Griese, a former Michigan quarterback who played 11 years in the NFL.
The Gophers (1-1) finish the nonconference schedule at TCF Bank Stadium against two Mid-American Conference foes - Saturday against Kent State (1-1) and then next week against Ohio (2-0) - before heading into the meat of their schedule.
Once the Big Ten season starts Oct. 3 against No. 23 Northwestern, Griese believes Leidner can lead Minnesota to a Big Ten West Division championship. He cited last year’s regular-season finale, a 34-24 loss to Wisconsin, that had the West title on the line.
“They were beating Wisconsin (17-3) in last year’s game, and really their only competition this year is Wisconsin,” said Griese, who provided color commentary during the Gophers’ 23-17 loss to then-No. 2 Texas Christian in the season opener.
CBS Sports Network college football analyst Jay Feely isn’t quite as confident in Leidner.
“That’s to be determined,” said Feely, who called the Gophers’ 23-20 comeback victory over Colorado State a week ago. “He has fortitude; he showed that in that game. You couldn’t have had a worse start. He was able to come back and lead them to victory and play well doing it.”
Gophers coach Jerry Kill looks at Leidner’s 11-7 record as a starter and not last week’s slow start, when he completed 1 of 7 passes for two yards in the first quarter. Leidner was 5 of 9 passing for 62 yards and added two rushes for 16 yards on a two-minute drive that put the Gophers ahead 20-17 before winning 23-20 in overtime.
“The bottom line is he took us right down the field, and we won the game,” Kill said.
Not all his fault
Griese and Feely agree that fault doesn’t just rest on Leidner, who ranks 104th in among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks with a 52.5 completion percentage.
“I don’t think it’s a symptom of Mitch Leidner alone,” Griese said.
Kill outlined a handful of dropped passes from receivers in each game along with injuries producing a “makeshift” offensive line and more pressure in the pocket on Leidner.
“Pressure affects you more than anything,” Griese said. “That isn’t just Mitch Leidner; that’s any quarterback.”
Feely, however, said Leidner had breakdowns in his footwork even when he wasn’t pressured by the Rams’ defense. Feely called it a “cardinal sin as a quarterback” to be falling away during throws.
“When you are not getting your feet right and you don’t have your base with you, that impacts your accuracy,” Feely said.
Kill said Leidner missed “four or five” receivers against Colorado State.
“He had space, the pocket was clean, he had time and he was still kind of drifting back,” said Feely, who was a kicker at Michigan and for 14 seasons in the NFL. “Those were some of the balls that floated on him. I’m sure that’s something that they are dealing with and focusing on.”
The number of passes Leidner has thrown early this season adds to the sample size under the microscope, and, therefore, the amount of scrutiny he has received.
In 2014, Leidner was 14 of 28 passing for 211 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the first two games against lesser opponents in Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee State.
This season, he is 42 of 80 for 430 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against teams that went a combined 22-4 last season. He set a career-high for attempts in both games - 35 against Texas Christian and 45 versus Colorado State.
“Too darn many” passes, Kill said.
The Gophers’ game plan against the Rams was to establish the run, but they had only five rushes for 17 yards in the first quarter.
“They are not the type of team built to be able to drop back and pass,” Feely said. “They have to be able to run the ball to be able to throw the ball.”
After Kill said he was “embarrassed” by his team’s play in the first half, the Gophers were able to run the ball to start the third quarter. Rodney Smith had two carries for 32 yards before Leidner completed a bubble screen that Drew Wolitarsky finished off with a 38-yard run into the end zone.
“They didn’t come out and start slinging it around,” Feely said. “They were effective running the ball. They were effective in play action.”
Patient in the pocket
Before the last-minute, go-ahead touchdown pass to KJ Maye, Leidner completed a fourth-and-6 pass to tight end Nate Wozniak for a make-or-break first down.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover praised Leidner because he worked through a progression of receivers to find the open man.
“(Wozniak) wasn’t the primary (target) on that, which I give Mitch a ton of credit for, because they jumped all over the primary part of the route,” Limegrover said. “(He) did a great job with his eyes coming back and fortunately saw (Wozniak) running there.”
Leidner said he didn’t miss making a single proper play change at the line of scrimmage against Colorado State.
“That’s one of the things that helps build trust with the coaches, when you can make all the checks and reads as a quarterback,” Leidner said.
A few times during the broadcast, Feely mentioned Leidner’s ability to find open receivers after the first or second options were covered.
“I saw him go through his progression and find the third or fourth receiver,” Feely said.
But in order to be first the Big Ten West, Griese said Leidner’s play must improve.
“There is no question that Mitch will have to play better than he has in the first two weeks of the season,” Griese said. “But it takes time.”
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