Minneapolis — Mitch Leidner spent a week listening to calls for his benching and criticisms of Minnesota’s anemic offense in the wake of an ugly 10-7 win over Kent State.
He answered those critics emphatically with one of the best games of his career.
Leidner threw for a career-high 264 yards and freshman Shannon Brooks rushed for 82 yards and two touchdowns — the last a 3-yard plunge with 30 seconds remaining that lifted Minnesota to a 27-24 victory over Ohio on Saturday.
“It feels good,” said Leidner, who completed 22 of 32 passes. “I talked about it earlier in the week, never losing confidence in myself. I’ve been a competitive kid my entire life and at no point was I going to back down from any type of competition.”
The Golden Gophers (3-1) trailed 24-20 with less than 2:30 to play, but Leidner completed 4 of 6 passes for 42 yards on the winning 78 yard touchdown drive. He got a little lucky when one of those throws was dropped by Ohio defensive back Ian Wells, but completed three more passes after that to move the Gophers into position.
Derrius Vick completed 17 of 27 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns and A.J. Ouellette rushed for 59 yards and another score for Ohio (3-1). But Vick’s Hail Mary pass with the clock expiring was batted down, and the Gophers escaped.
Rodney Smith rushed for 94 yards on 16 carries and Brooks also scored on a nifty 40-yard run in his first extended action for the Gophers, who found themselves in another battle with a Mid-America Conference opponent for the second week in a row.
After struggling mightily against Kent State last week, fans were clamoring for coach Jerry Kill to take the redshirt off of freshman Demry Croft and hand the job over to him. Croft warmed up in the second half last week, and Kill spent this week ducking questions about the quarterback, which only increased the speculation.
“To be in a situation like I was this week and angry after the Kent State game and to bounce back, both myself and offensively as a unit, it’s huge for us,” Leidner said. “It’s huge for this program.”
In a weird twist, it was the Gophers defense and special teams that were letting them down. Vick utilized his big receivers on the outside for long passes down the field. He hit Papi White for a 39-yard touchdown to open the scoring, and then hit Sebastian Smith on a 10-yard strike for a 14-7 lead.
The Gophers lost star defensive back Brien Boddy-Calhoun and three other members of the secondary to injury, and gave up three pass plays of at least 30 yards for the first time since 2013.
Punt returner Craig James muffed two punts in the first half — one after being hit by a teammate — that were recovered by Minnesota. But he coughed the ball up a third time in the fourth quarter when he was stripped by Cody Grilliot, which led to Ouelette’s 11-yard touchdown run that gave Ohio a 21-17 lead.
“We’re decimated right now,” Kill said of all the injuries. “But good teams find a way to have the next guy step up, and that’s why I’m so proud of our team.”
Minnesota responded with Ryan Santoso’s second field goal of the game cut it to 21-20, but after their late touchdown, Ohio’s Daz’mond Patterson returned the ensuing kickoff 56 yards to give the Bobcats one more shot.
Josiah Yazdani lined up to try a 53-yard field goal in the closing moments. The Gophers called timeout just before the snap to try to ice Yazdani, who then kicked the ball anyway. But the officials flagged him for delay of game, and an incensed Ohio coach Frank Solich decided not to try a 58-yarder.
“The way the sequence developed, and the flow of it,” Solich said, “that was very much a surprise to me.”