Jim Mone/Associated Press
In the days leading up to the Collegiate Bowl, we will profile several of the players committed to play in the sixth annual showcase. Today’s feature is on Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner.
Mitch Leidner cuts an imposing presence at 6 feet 4 inches, and when he steps onto the field, his presence is immediately made known. The quarterback is always the leader, the captain of the team, and Leidner was exactly that for the Gophers. But in an age where aerial assaults are the norm, Leidner did more than that mark, thanks to his exceptional skill as a runner. He can make people miss, he can run people over, and most of all, he can and did lead Minnesota to victory.
Leidner’s talent was undeniable, and so was the pull to play him even in his freshman year. While it may be prudent to let a quarterback sit for a little while to develop, Leidner was ahead of the curve enough to get immediate playing time. While he didn’t see too many snaps in the first week of his freshman year, he was efficient with them, rushing for 25 yards and a touchdown in an easy win over UNLV.
After some spot duty against New Mexico in a blowout win, he would unexpectedly see his first taste of extended action against Western Illinois when he had to come in as an injury replacement. All he did was complete seven of his eight passes for 105 yards and rush for 64 yards on 17 carries. While his showing wasn’t perfect, it was more than enough to come out with a win, and placed enough confidence in the staff to hand him the reins the next week against San Jose State. Leidner responded by tearing up the Spartans defense for 151 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He threw it just well enough (71 yards through the air) to keep the defense honest in a 43-24 win.
After ceding his spot in the lineup against Iowa for the starter returning from injury, Leidner came back to play Michigan. While he did not produce gaudy numbers against the Wolverines defense, he produced admirably enough, throwing for a touchdown and completing two-thirds of his passes while gaining 66 yards on the ground. It would be the last of his extended action until the bowl game, where he would throw for a season-high 205 yards against Syracuse in a nail-biter loss.
With that promising season under his belt, Leidner was now entrenched as the starter going forward, and he delivered on his potential immediately. The first two weeks of the season saw him throw over 200 yards combined with a touchdown pass in each game, as well as two rushing touchdowns as Minnesota won comfortably.
Unfortunately, during the ensuing week, Leidner suffered the worst game of his career with a three-pick day against TCU and failed to make much as an impact as a runner.
Thankfully for the program, Leidner bounced back in a big way by avenging the previous year’s loss to the Wolverines. He threw for 163 yards, completed over 60 percent of his passes, scored two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) and most importantly, took care of the football as the Gophers won 30-14.
The outcome marked the first of three straight conference wins for Minnesota, as Leidner ran the read-option offense to near perfection. And even after the winning streak was snapped against Illinois, Leidner again rebounded in his game versus Iowa, completing over 75 percent of his passes while throwing for a career-high four touchdown passes and rushing for 77 yards.
His first game rushing over the century mark came the week after losing to Ohio State as he ran all over the Nebraska defense to the tune of 111 yards and two scores in a 28-24 win. That would be enough to clinch another bowl game berth for the Gophers, during which they lost to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl. The future, however, looked bright as Leidner wrapped up his sophomore campaign with almost 1,800 yards passing, an 11:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and over 400 yards on the ground.
Leidner’s final two years saw him hit a number of key milestones. He played in every single game of the 2015 season, and not only threw for 300 yards for the first time in his career, he did it in back-to-back weeks against Nebraska and Michigan.
The Minnesota offense would struggle at times, but Leidner’s improvements as a passer made sure that they were competitive in almost every game. Gone were the days of barely surpassing 10 attempts; now, Leidner was trusted to chuck it around the field 20, 30, and sometimes even 40 times a game. And when Minnesota was mired in a four-game losing streak, he willed them out of that slump with a vintage performance in a win over Illinois, ensuring that the Gophers would play in another bowl game. This time, Minnesota knocked off Central Michigan by the score of 21-14 behind Leidner’s two touchdowns.
After that, Leidner’s senior season was a nice feather in his cap; he threw for a career-high four touchdowns against Indiana State, and took the eventual Big Ten champions to overtime before losing to Penn State, 29-26. He also put together a solid win streak as Minnesota toppled Rutgers, Illinios, and Purdue in succession.
Finally, in the Holiday Bowl against Washington State, Leidner turned in a performance emblematic of his career. It wasn’t pretty, as he barely completed over half his passes for 129 yards. He also wasn’t tantalizing with his running ability, grinding out a hard-earned 26 yards on 10 attempts. But it was gritty, and his never-quit attitude gave way to two touchdowns in the defensive struggle that saw Minnesota prevail 17-12.
Leidner ended his career as a four-year starter, a leader, and a quarterback who gave it his all every single Saturday. What more could you want?
– David Chough
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Analyst