It took awhile, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers came away with an easy 35-7 victory over the Eastern Illinois Panthers Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers led the whole way, but the Panthers had opportunities in the first half, but the Gopher defense did not break.
In all the Gophers defense finished the game with three turnovers (two fumble recoveries and an interception). The special teams units contributed with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown on the first possession of the second half and also held the Panthers off the scoreboard with a missed field goal.
“We work hard on special teams,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “We saw something in their scheme. (Cornerback Eric Murray) came untouched and he can run. It was a big play in the game.
“We said before the game that we wanted to make some plays in the kicking game.”
Alex Keith led the way with four total tackles (one for a loss), one sack, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. His first recovery set up the Gophers’ first score on a short run. His second recovery negated a Panther scoring opportunity inside the five-yard line.
Keith was one of three defensive lineman to depart the game early due to an injury. Keith exited in the third quarter after Yoshoub Timms and Scott Ekpe were sidelined in the first quarter. The team entered the game without starting defensive end Michael Amaefula and were forced to play three true freshmen.
“I’m concerned,” Kill said. “Nobody has a ton of depth. We’ll see what happens. It’s a concern. Just put the next one in. It makes you a little nervous right now. I don’t now how serious things are, but guys stepped up.”
The Gophers managed just 21 yards in the first quarter, including 11 on the first play of the game. Quarterback Mitch Leidner completed 1-4 passing attempts for two yards. He did not complete a pass to a receiver (tight end or wide receiver) until connecting with tight end Maxx Williams late in the second quarter.
Leidner took off from there completing all four passes on the drive, which ended on a 35-yard touchdown strike to Donovahn Jones. Leidner finished the game completing 9-of-17 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown. He also had 26 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“I think he just settled in,” Kill said said. “Throughout the season you get better and better. I don’t think you can evaluate it or judge it, except on the scoreboard. That is how you judge quarterbacks. First game out of the season, he saw more blitz and more things than he’ll see in a lifetime.”
Along with Jones’ touchdown strike, the Gophers got a 42-yard touchdown run by Berkley Edwards. The redshirt freshman showed his big play capability with 60 yards on four carries and two touchdowns.
The Gophers return to action Sept. 6 against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders at TCF Bank Stadium.
Eastern Illinois……0 0 0 20 - 20
Minnesota…………7 7 7 21 - 42
Minn - Leidner 2 run (Santoso kick)
Minn - Jones 35 pass from Leidner (Santoso kick)
Minn - Hutton 2 punt block return (Santoso kick)
Minn - Leidner 5 run (Santoso kick)
Minn - Edwards 1 run (Santoso kick)
EIU - Manley 1 run (Bruno kick)
Minn - Edwards 42 run (Santoso kick)
EIU - Lera 11 pass from Manley (Bruno kick)
EIU - Drake 33 pass from Manley