It wasn’t pretty on the scoreboard, but there was something very pretty hidden inside the 21-14 victory for the Minnesota Gophers on Monday night. That was the play of quarterback Mitch Leidner.
The junior quarterback has been much maligned as a passer, but as the offense needed him to be just that, he’s come up big. No game proved that more than the Quick Lane Bowl, as Leidner went 24 of 30 for 223 yards and one touchdown to one interception.
Considering the low-scoring affair, his ability to complete 80 percent of his passes and also do some timely running showed exactly why he is growing in to more than just a competent quarterback.
It also earned him the MVP trophy for the game, an honor senior wide receiver KJ Maye believed was completely deserved.
“He was clutch,” Maye said. “He made some great throws, some great decisions out there. He really deserves that MVP trophy. He had a great game.”
Monday’s performance wasn’t the first clue of such a change, but it was perhaps the most telling performance of the season. Statistically speaking, it was the highest completion rate and second-highest QB rating of the season.
However, this was just further proof that Leidner is growing in to a quarterback the Gophers can win with, not despite of.
Leidner threw for 200-plus yards in six of his final seven games this season, which is exactly what this team needed in order to compete in the Big Ten.
Perhaps most telling is that in those six games, Leidner completed 60 percent of his passes or better and completed 65 percent or better in four of those six games as well.
All of this was a necessity, with the Gophers failing to provide a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in the Jerry Kill era. Shannon Brooks, a redshirt freshman, emerged as a good option for the future — rushing for 709 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the team in both categories.
The Gophers finished the season 11th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 142.9 yards per game. Given the need for balance, it was not much of a surprise that change came to the offensive coaching staff.
Newly minted head coach Tracy Claeys fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrower and offensive line coach Jim Zebrowski at the end of the regular season. According to a report from the Star Tribune, Claeys has picked Louisiana-Lafayette offensive coordinator Jay Johnson to fill both the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach role.
He’s known for a balance on offense and having one of the better track records with quarterbacks in a long coaching journey. It’s a move that combined with what we saw on Monday night from Leidner gives hope for 2016 to be much more successful.
There’s more to the mix for success though, as Bart Miller, a former Wisconsin offensive line coach, was hired to fill that position at Minnesota.
It’s all part of the formula for bigger and better things in 2016, yet there is more to it than just a few coaching changes.
Add in a competent run game to Leidner’s growth as a passer, mix in a dash of not seeing Michigan, Ohio State or TCU and adding Maryland and Rutgers to the schedule and suddenly 2016 could be a quick rise from a 6-7 season to a very nice looking year.
Just remember that the groundwork for any progress in 2016 came from Leidner being needed to pull the offense over the finish line in 2015 — and succeeding in doing it at the very end.