Gophers QB Leidner playing like a new man
By Marcus R. Fuller St. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- This seems to be shaping up as the year of the running back in the Big Ten, but the most consistent teams in the conference are winning games thanks to improved play from their quarterback...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - This seems to be shaping up as the year of the running back in the Big Ten, but the most consistent teams in the conference are winning games thanks to improved play from their quarterbacks.
Purdue (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten) had to bench its starting quarterback to discover Austin Appleby, who is playing well entering Saturday’s game against the Gophers (5-1, 2-0) at TCF Bank Stadium.
Mitch Leidner has always been Minnesota’s No. 1 guy, but he had to overcome a slow start and injuries to become one of the more consistent quarterbacks in the conference.
Leidner, who completed 65 percent of his passes in back-to-back victories over Michigan and Northwestern, ranks third in the Big Ten with a 141.0 pass efficiency rating - a 40-point jump from his performance in nonconference games.
“He literally was like a different young man when we went to Michigan,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “Just how he was on game day, how he was in the huddle, his demeanor game day, the enjoyment of it. He was out there having fun. That carried over to last week. Then there was that confidence.”
More than half the teams in the Big Ten have had quarterback issues this season, whether it’s inconsistency or the inability to stay healthy. Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Illinois’ West Lunt were lost to season-ending injuries in the past two weeks. Michigan’s Shane Morris forced the league to maintain medical spotters for every game to ensure players’ safety.
Leidner was the first Big Ten starting quarterback to miss a game this year with an injury that didn’t end his season, in the Sept. 20 game against San Jose State. The redshirt sophomore from Lakeville came back with arguably his best game in a Gopher uniform, completing 14 of 21 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-14 victory at Michigan on Sept. 27.
After a bye week, he returned to complete 10 of 15 passes for 153 yards with two rushing touchdowns in the 24-17 win over Northwestern last Saturday.
“I think over the last two games, the biggest thing about Mitch (is) he’s relaxed,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “Had a smile on his face, went and played. I think early in the year, he was pressing, then he got hurt, went through some things. I think he’s feeling good, feeling better.”
The time off before his past two games to rest his turf toe and torn medial collateral ligament gave him fresher legs and the itch to get back on the field and prove himself.
That scenario seemed familiar to Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski.
He remembered when Chandler Harnish, now a Minnesota Vikings reserve quarterback, was struggling with his confidence when he was banged up going into the 2010 season at Northern Illinois.
A meniscus injury caused Harnish to miss the season opener and threatened to sideline him for most of his junior year.
But doctors cleared him. And Northern Illinois needed him to play.
“He had a crappy summer,” Zebrowski said. “So I told him, ‘Chandler, if you don’t play hard, have fun playing, be who you want to be, this is your one shot, because I’m going to put Jordan Lynch in the next game and we’re going with a young kid and move on.’ ”
Lynch ended up being an All-American for the Huskies but only after waiting his turn. Harnish got the message and played well enough to keep the job.
Last year when Gophers starter Philip Nelson hurt his hamstring and missed a game, his confidence was shaken until seeing Leidner play so well seemed to light a fire under him. Nelson returned, kept the job and played well the rest of the season.
“Sometimes watching games on the sideline and realizing, I can do this thing ... Watching someone else do it, sometimes helps kids,” Zebrowski said.
Leidner talked with Harnish this season to learn from the adversity he went through.
The Gophers quarterback said after the Michigan win that sitting out and watching backup Chris Streveler’s 166-yard rushing game against San Jose State was difficult. He was happy for Streveler but wanted to be the guy again.
And for the offense to be balanced, Leidner had to get back on the field since he throws the ball better than Streveler. And the Gophers were able to establish the passing game when Leidner returned against the Wolverines.
“It’s just exciting going into each game, knowing the different play calls that we have the ability to call,” Leidner said. “Hopefully, we get to keep taking more and more shots as the games keep going. Coach (Zebrowski) has been doing a great job with me and the rest of the quarterbacks. It’s been really cool to see.”
Minnesota relied heavily on the run game throughout the nonconference schedule. But with Leidner getting comfortable, Kill and Limegrover decided finally to open up the playbook last week against Northwestern, making the most of play-action passes, post corner routes - even a screen pass to tight end Maxx Williams.
“We felt excited for him when we would call pass plays because we knew this was stuff he felt good about, was feeling good and confident,” Limegrover said. “Now our job is: What can we continue to do with what Purdue is giving us that can keep him in that good frame of mind?”
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