MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The nerves surprised Mitch Leidner, but they were there at the beginning of his first season as Minnesota’s unquestioned starting quarterback.
The anxiety wasn’t anything a little touchdown run couldn’t remedy.
Leidner rushed for two scores and threw a touchdown pass to Donovahn Jones, leading the Gophers past Eastern Illinois 42-20 on Thursday.
“Getting my legs moving a little bit, getting a little contact, that’s always a big thing that gets me into a game,” said Leidner, who was 3 for 8 for 24 yards while taking two sacks and losing a fumble over the first five possessions.
He scrambled in for a third-and-goal score from 2 yards out during that span, though, a rhythm he continued on a nine-play, 90-yard drive punctuated by the 35-yard touchdown toss to Jones the next time the Gophers had the ball.
Leidner finished 9 for 17 with 144 yards, Berkley Edwards ran for two late scores in his first career game and the defense delivered a punishing performance to overwhelm the Panthers, a perennial FCS power facing the Gophers for the first time.
Coach Jerry Kill wasn’t worried about the slow start by Leidner, who made four starts last year in a sporadic time-share with Philip Nelson. The Panthers were constantly changing their defense in an attempt to catch the Gophers off guard.
“He’s seen more things and more blitz than he’ll see in a lifetime,” Kill said.
Jalen Whitlow, a transfer from Kentucky, went 14 for 23 passing for 110 yards and rushed 19 times for 77 yards for the Panthers. He had an interception, though, and took two sacks on a mistake-marred night. Right after halftime, Eric Murray blocked a punt near the goal line for the Gophers that Logan Hutton grabbed for a three-touchdown lead.
“Any time you give up a special-teams touchdown, it’ll take the wind out of your sails,” Panthers linebacker Adam Gristick said.
To improve on their 4-4 finish in the Big Ten, the Gophers are going to need to be better than last in the league in passing yards, where they finished last year. So there’s clearly a lot of work left for Leidner and his unproven group of wide receivers this fall. Two promising sophomores, Jones and Maxx Williams, each had 57 yards.
The defense is further along. Alex Keith, who started at defensive end in place of the injured Michael Amaefula, was credited with a sack and two recovered fumbles to highlight the kind of production the Gophers have come to expect on that side of the ball.
The downside was Keith got hurt, as did fellow starter Scott Ekpe and backup Yoshoub Timms. Three freshmen were part of the front-four rotation throughout the night.
“A lot of young guys, but it certainly makes you a little nervous,” Kill said.
Young guys can contribute, though, like Ryan Santoso, who made all six of his extra points and sent five of his seven kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Edwards, another redshirt freshman, gained 60 yards on four carries.
“He’s lightning in a bottle,” Kill said.
The Panthers went 12-2 last season while leading all FCS teams in yards and points, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round NFL draft pick by New England, and head coach Dino Babers, who moved up a level to take the job at Bowling Green, are gone.
First-time head coach Kim Dameron brought in Whitlow, one of five transfers from FBS programs, with plans to platoon the junior with senior Andrew Manley.
Manley passed for 288 yards and three scores here in 2011 to lead New Mexico State to an upset over the Gophers in head coach Jerry Kill’s first home game with the program. Thursday night, Manley finished 18 for 34 for 200 yards, running for a short touchdown and throwing two other scores in the fourth quarter.
After opening last season with a 40-19 win at San Diego State, however, this hope of another upset of an FBS opponent fell well short. Not only did the Panthers lose the fumble at their own 5, they gave one away at the Minnesota 4. After Leidner coughed up the ball at his 28 in the first quarter, Nick Bruno’s 41-yard field-goal try was wide right.
On fourth-and-6 near midfield in the third quarter, they called a quick kick. Whitlow’s punt netted 3 yards.
“We just couldn’t string anything together. Every time we turned around, it’s a penalty or a bad throw or we snap the ball at the wrong time,” Dameron said. “That was very frustrating.”
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