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Minnesota can contend in Big Ten West if Leidner is consistent

Matt Blewett/Icon Sportswire

According to the Big Ten preseason media poll, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were picked to finish 5th in the Big Ten West.

Strangely enough, one Minnesota media outlet listed the Gophers as a potentially tough opponent for Iowa, everybody’s favorite to win the West.

So far this season, the Gophers are 2-0, including last Saturday’s win over an overmatched Indiana State team. They also beat an underwhelming Oregon State side in the season opener. While that may not be enough to suggest that they will be a serious contender in the Big Ten West, the Gophers are going to make it interesting.

That’s mainly because of the improved passing of dual-threat quarterback Mitch Leidner. So far this season, Leidner has completed 58 percent of his passes and has thrown four touchdown passes without an interception. In 2015, he threw 11 picks.

Last Saturday against Indiana State, Leidner completed 20-of-30 passes for 295 yards and four touchdowns. He threw the ball to eight different receivers.

Minnesota head coach Tracey Claeys told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that’s why Leidner is growing as a passer.

“If you always look for one receiver all the time, it gets a little bit easier to defend,” Claeys said. “He’s definitely going through the progressions and what he’s taught.”

The Minnesota offensive line has done its job by keeping Leidner clean. The redshirt senior hasn’t been sacked in the team’s first two games.

One of the things that came out of last week’s game is that Leidner may have found a new favorite target in wide receiver Drew Worlitarsky, who caught eight passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Leidner didn’t just focus on just one guy, however. He also included junior wide receiver Brian Smith, who caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

If Leidner has become a better passer, it’s going to make his own ability to run the football even more dangerous, especially if he can’t find any open receivers when he drops back in the pocket. More importantly, if Leidner can develop any consistency in the passing game, teams may think twice about putting that extra guy in the box to stop the Gophers running game.

Speaking of the Minnesota ground attack, the Gophers are always a handful to stop in the running game. With sophomore running back Shannon Brooks out with a foot injury, junior Kobe McCrary gained 176 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns in the win over Indiana State.

So far this season, Rodney Smith is the Gophers’ leading rusher with 199 yards and three touchdowns. Smith gained 125 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns in the season-opening win over Oregon State.

Meanwhile, Brooks is expected to be back in uniform when the Gophers take on Colorado State on Sept. 24. That will make a strong Minnesota rushing attack even stronger.

The Minnesota defense, which gave up 23 points to Oregon State and 28 points to Indiana State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, needs to improve. That’s a priority during the bye week.

Of course, the first real test for the Gophers will come when they get into their Big Ten schedule, starting with their Oct. 1 road game against Penn State before coming home against defending Big Ten West champion Iowa.

The key for those games is for the Gophers to lead with their strong rushing game and for Leidner to be the consistent quarterback this team knows he can be.

Minnesota can contend in Big Ten West if Leidner is consistent

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