MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Mitch Leidner grabbed attention from Division I schools as a classic, drop-back passer slinging the ball all over the field for Lakeville South High School in suburban Minneapolis.
Two years later, Leidner looked much less like Tom Brady and much more like Tim Tebow as he bulled through the San Jose State defense.
Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns to lift Minnesota to a 43-24 victory over San Jose State on Saturday.
“I always thought I was going to be a passer,” Leidner said with a chuckle after running the ball 24 times and throwing it just 12. “But it’s fun running the ball, that’s for sure.”
Leidner was filling in for injured starter Philip Nelson, who was out with a bad hamstring. He also passed for 71 yards as the Golden Gophers improved to 4-0. Gophers coach Jerry Kill returned to the sideline a week after missing the second half because of an epileptic seizure and made it through the game without incident.
David Fales threw for 439 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions for San Jose State (1-2). Chandler Jones had seven catches for 197 yards and three touchdowns for the Spartans, who were missing top receiver Noel Grigsby with a knee injury.
David Cobb rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns and the Gophers dominated the time of possession 40:38-18:58 to grind Fales and the high-flying Spartans into submission.
At 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, Leidner exhibited some deceptive athleticism, using his 4.6 speed to break several big runs and his impressive size to bull over tacklers and plunge into the end zone. He learned that different style as a redshirt on the scout team last season, running the opposing team’s offense against the Gophers’ starting defense each week.
“I like going against Mitch,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “He’s aggressive. He has that competitive nature and he makes us all better.”
After stubbing their toe on the opening drive and missing a 51-yard field goal try, the Gophers stuffed San Jose State on fourth-and-1 from the 15 before grinding out a 10-play drive on the ground to take the lead. Leidner capped the drive with a read option, faking a handoff and cruising untouched 10 yards for the touchdown.
Fales, who some scouts project as a first-round draft pick next spring, showed off that NFL arm all afternoon, never more so than on a perfectly placed deep ball over Jones’ right shoulder for a 76-yard touchdown pass. It was effortless, just a flick of the wrist sent the ball whistling right over cornerback Derrick Wells’ outstretched arms to make it 13-10.
“First half we had some rhythm and we’re hitting all the throws we wanted,” Fales said. “We were getting all the looks we thought we would.”
His second touchdown of the day, a 32-yard strike to Jones on a seam route gave Fales 294 yards passing in the first half. The Spartans trailed 20-17 at half, but probably could have had the lead were it not for a pair of curious calls deep in Gophers territory.
The Spartans twice had third-and-5 or shorter inside the Minnesota 20 in the first half, but each time called for a running play that failed to get the first down.
The magic started to fade in the second half when Fales tried to squeeze a pass to Jabari Carr into a tight window. The ball deflected into the air and Aaron Hill made a nifty one-handed interception to give the Gophers the ball at the Minnesota 12.
“Just being more aggressive on defense and make that our identity this year,” Hill said. “I thought we came out in the second half and made the adjustments we needed to. The DBs stepped up and the d-line stepped up.”
Leidner scored from 1 yard out three plays later for a 26-17 lead, and the Gophers never looked back. Kill challenged the defense at halftime and was pleased with how they responded.
“I said, ‘Look in that mirror before you go out there and make sure that you’re giving your best,'” Kill said. “I thought they took it up an extra gear and we got (Fales) out of rhythm.”
Spartans kicker Harrison Waid was ejected in the fourth quarter after a confrontation with Wells on an onside kick.
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