Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner looks to be ‘the guy’ after slow start
If the light turned on suddenly for Michigan State's Connor Cook last year, the same can happen for Minnesota's Mitch Leidner.
At least that's what Gophers football coach Jerry Kill tells his quarterback, especially after his underwhelming 144-yard passing performance in last week's 42-20 season-opening victory against Eastern Illinois.
There's really nowhere to go but up. Minnesota had the Big Ten's worst passing offense last year. But it will take a much better effort on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
"Week 2 will be different from Week 1," Kill said. "We have to understand now, that's his first true start as the guy. So I don't know if we can get it done, but my deal is we have to keep moving and progress forward, just like the kid from Michigan State."
Before Cook became a star for Michigan State, he bore the criticism of fans last year for struggling in the first few games as a redshirt sophomore starter -- the same status as Leidner this season.
That included being benched in a loss to Notre Dame but Cook finished the season on fire, with back-to-back 300-yard passing games against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and against Stanford to win most outstanding player honors in the Rose Bowl.
"He got better and better. I just keep looking at him, because it's unbelievable what that kid did," Kill said. "And so you stay with what you believe in.
"I think Mitch will continue to get better. He'll learn a lot from the [Eastern Illinois] game."
Leidner took the blame for missing several early throws, and losing a fumble on a first-quarter sack when he should have thrown the ball away.
But his offensive line also had trouble keeping him comfortable in the pocket while under the duress of constant blitzes from the Panthers.
"Every time we came off the sideline, it seemed like we were getting a new defense thrown at us," Leidner said. "I'm glad they got to see that early on in the season; now they can be prepared for anything."
Leidner eventually had time to connect on a 25-yard pass to tight end Maxx Williams and a 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Donovahn Jones -- both had a team-leading 57 receiving yards.
But Jones, who was overthrown on a deep pass in the first half, was the only wide receiver with a catch. Williams, the team's leading receiver in 2013, wasn't targeted until the second quarter.
"But I think Mitch did his thing," Williams said. "I think it was more just falling into the first game."
Kill also said the Gophers should have gotten the ball to K.J. Maye, a junior who had the most impressive camp of any receiver.
"It was tough, some of the things they were doing defensively last week," Leidner said. "But we know K.J. is a playmaker. We've got to get him the ball. There's a lot more things this week we're going to do to get him some touches."
Eight Big Ten quarterbacks passed for 200 yards or more in the opening week of college football this season. But the Gophers aren't overly concerned that Leidner wasn't one of them because gaudy yardage isn't as important as a quarterback who can win, limits turnovers and moves the offense.
"I judge quarterbacks if they can move the chains and win," Kill said. "I've seen a lot of fantastic quarterbacks do everything but they don't win. I think winning is a big part of that. His progression is there."
Ball security has been one of Leidner's best attributes. Though he lost the fumble in Week 1, he didn't throw an interception for a sixth straight game.
Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski now wants Leidner to improve his accuracy up closer to 65 to 70 percent. Against Eastern Illinois, he completed 52.9 percent (9 for 17) of his passes.
"If you can run the ball, everything is really good," Zebrowski said. "It's those moments when you can't run it, we want to make sure that if we can't -- they're putting 10 in the box, nine in the box -- we have to able to make plays in the passing game. We can't have no answers."
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