Minnesota (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) quarterback Mitch Leidner did not appear to be hurt during the Golden Gophers’ 14-7 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes, but his status quickly changed in the hours after the game.
Leidner took a hard hit late in the game and apparently that spurned some message board chatter that he was acting concussed after the game. Of course, message boards are probably one of the worst sources of information on the planet, so it wasn’t surprising that head coach Tray Claeys denied those rumors after the game.
“He never would have gone back in the game if he had a concussion. He jumped right back up and went back in and played,” Claeys said via Joe Christensen of Gridiron Gold. “So if that is the case, they know more than I do. That’s the problem with message boards, but that’s part of life.”
The last part of Claeys’ comments now seem a bit ironic, though, because apparently the message boards did know something that he didn’t regarding Leidner. That’s not a good look for a head coach, but that’s a completely different story.
What is the story is the Claeys declared Leidner out of this weekend’s contest against Maryland (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten). According to reports, again from Christensen, Claeys told the media that Leidner started showing symptoms of a concussion after the game and even on Sunday the medical staff didn’t think it was too serious.
It was obviously serious enough, though, because Minnesota’s starting quarterback is going through concussion protocol this week, and he’ll be unavailable for a very important game road game against the Terrapins.
Enter redshirt junior Conor Rhoda, a relative unknown and a former walk-on. Rhoda is slated to be Minnesota’s starting quarterback this week and what that means for the Golden Gophers is really anybody’s guess.
He’s a 6-foot-3, 215 pound quarterback from Eagan, Minn., and he wasn’t ranked as a recruit. He also didn’t have any offers, thus the walk-on tag, but it’s worth noting that he has stuck with the Gophers for the past few seasons.
He redshirted in 2013 and saw game action twice in 2014, attempting one pass. In 2015 he didn’t see any game action, but according to the team website, he was named the Offensive Work Team Player of the Year. So far this season, he’s only thrown one pass for six yards, a pass that game against Indiana State.
Other than that, Rhoda is a mystery as far as his skill set is concerned, though it is worth noting that one of his receivers believes he throws the ball pretty hard, according to Associated Press.
“[Rhoda] likes to sling the rock. We’ll tape our fingers this week,” Drew Wolitarsky said.
So he likes to throw heat. Cool.
How is that expected to help Minnesota in what could be looked at as a must win game? A loss to Maryland would be the Gophers’ third straight, and when things start skidding during a season anything is liable to happen.
The good news for the Gophers is that they don’t need Rhoda to do much. They were in position last week to potentially force overtime against Iowa and it was largely despite the fact that Leidner was horrible through the air. Leidner also didn’t accomplish anything with his feet against the Hawkeyes, so it’s not necessarily the quarterback who is going to get things done for this offense.
The biggest thing Minnesota can do to help Rhoda out is prime sophomore running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks for a big game. Brooks looked good against the Hawkeyes, rushing for 55 yards and the Gophers’ only score, but both players will have to step up in order to Minnesota’s offense to even be remotely effective.
If there’s no threat of a run game, Maryland will be able to attack Rhoda at will, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
The good news for the Gophers is Maryland’s rush defense is ranked No. 9 in the Big Ten, giving up 169.60 yards per game on the ground, so it’s not extremely strong. Maryland’s pass defense is also rather average, ranked No. 8 in the Big Ten, so if the Gophers can get things going on the ground that could open up some easy throwing lanes for Rhoda and his receivers as the Terps’ defense starts packing the box in response.
Rhoda will have some targets, mainly senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (379 yards and three touchdowns this season) and junior Brian Smith (245 yards and a touchdown), but keep an eye out out for junior tight end Nate Wozniak as well. Wozniak is huge target at 6-foot-10, 275 pounds, and that type of target can be a huge safety net for a quarterback in his first start, especially if the Gophers can take advantage of the run and set up play-action passes.
It’s not going to be easy for Rhoda, but he doesn’t necessarily have to win the game for Minnesota. He just needs to be a part of one.