With the weather finally cooperating, the Gopher football team took the field at TCF Bank Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon for the 2013 spring game. The Maroon team beat their White team counterparts by a final score of 24-17. The Maroon dominated offensively, outgaining the White Team in passing, rushing and total yards.
The Philip Nelson-led Maroon team started out the scrimmage, which drew an announced 8,400 spectators, with a long drive from the 35-yard line that included two fourth down conversions, culminating in a one-yard Donnell Kirkwood touchdown. Rodrick Williams gave the game its first big play earlier in the drive, breaking off a 30-yard run to the eight yard line.
Nelson didn’t slow down in the second half. He found a streaking Derrick Engel over the middle and hit him perfectly in stride for 39 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Engel was the recipient of another Nelson pass, this time for a 10-yard touchdown.
Nelson finished his strong Spring Game with 179 yards and the touchdown on 13-17 passing, chipping in 31 yards on the ground as well. The Mankato West product was a perfect 10 for 10 in the first half for 119 yards.
“I thought he operated pretty smooth for the most part,” said Coach Kill of Nelson’s performance. “We had a couple hiccups. I’m not really sure that’s his fault or not. We’ll have to go back on film. He got off to a good start.”
Quarterback Mitch Leidner performed admirably, amassing 118 yards and two touchdowns on 10-18 passing, primarily for the White team. Late in the third quarter, Leidner found Logan Hutton in the end zone to cut the White team’s deficit to 14-10. Then, Leidner capitalized on the short field provided by a Maroon team fumble to give the White a short-lived 17-14 lead on a 10-yard TD toss to Jamel Harbison.
Leidner believes he’s made big strides already this spring.
“I think I improved a lot. I feel way more comfortable with the offense and throwing the football and running the football,” said Leidner, a redshirt freshman from Lakeville, Minn. “It’s just been a great spring for me.”
The redshirt freshman Harbison showed that he’s recovered from an ACL tear suffered in last year’s season opener at UNLV. The North Carolina native carried the load for the White receiving corps, finishing with 52 yards on five catches.
“I had no problem cutting,” said Harbison. “My knee was not a problem.”
Derrick Engel and Maxx Williams also stood out in the passing game. Engel led all players with 74 yards receiving, including a touchdown from Nelson, and Williams continued his impressive spring with 54 yards of his own on three catches.
The rushing attack for both teams was spread out, but Rodrick Williams led the way with 49 yards. Kirkwood scored the two touchdowns and finished with 23 yards, while Cole Banham also showed flashes, breaking off a couple of big gains, including a 16-yard run.
On the defensive end, James Manuel led all players with seven tackles for Maroon, followed closely by Grayson Levine and Damien Wilson with six each for the White squad. Theiren Cockran reached the quarterback twice and five additional players each recorded a sack. Damien Wilson and John McKelvey picked up the only two turnovers of the game with a fumble recovery and interception, respectively.
With the Spring Game in the books, Minnesota will take a break as the team heads into a dead period. The team will resume practice in the fall as they ramp up to the season opener on August 29 vs. UNLV at TCF Bank Stadium.
On a beautiful spring day at TCF Bank Stadium, a pair of young quarterbacks put on a show for the thousands of Gopher fans in attendance. Returning starter Philip Nelson came out firing, and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner came on strong later in the game.
Nelson’s Maroon team scored both of its first-half touchdowns on the ground, but that did not overshadow the sophomore quarterback’s passing game. He completed all 10 of his passes in the half for 119 yards.
“It was just really great to get out here in a game-like atmosphere and being able to have more consecutive drives and being able to really move the ball down the field like a real-life game,” Nelson said. “That helps build some momentum.”
Nelson completed the longest pass of the game, a 39-yarder to Derrick Engel, to open the fourth quarter.
“We had struggled on that a couple other practices,” Nelson said. “It felt really good to finally complete one of those and move forward from there.”
Two plays later, Nelson again connected with Engel for his only touchdown of the game. Nelson finished the game 13-of-17 for 179 yards. The sophomore, who said he feels faster than last year, also used his legs for a 20-yard run.
Leidner, playing in his first spring game, started out running more than passing. But he started to throw more and eventually helped the Gold team take the lead.
“I was able to read the defense quicker,” Leidner said. “Jamel (Harbison) was running some great routes, along with Victor (Keise) and Logan (Hutton). It was just getting easier as the game went on.”
Both quarterbacks feel they have grown since last season. Nelson said his ability to read coverage has improved, while Leidner said he feels more comfortable with the Gopher offense. The competition between the two has helped both improve.
Though Nelson took over the starting role as a true freshman, head coach Jerry Kill is not ruling out the possibility of Leidner challenging for playing time. The depth chart for the season opener will not be set until fall camp is over.
“Competition is always going to be a competition,” Kill said. “I’ve been that way everywhere I’ve been. Somebody has to take Philip’s job. Right now it’s his job. Somebody has to take it. That’s part of how you play.”
Weather Forecast for Saturday's Spring Game: 71, Sunny
It looks like the Gopher football team will finally get to go outside this Saturday, right in time for the final event of camp, the spring game. Fans are encouraged to make their way out to TCF Bank Stadium for the 1 P.M. game, where admittance is free of charge. For the first time in Jerry Kill’s tenure at Minnesota, the game will consist of the conventional ones vs. twos format rather than an offense vs. defense matchup.
Last season, the Gopher’s defense took big strides in stopping opposing offenses and will look to continue that momentum by holding their counterparts on the other side of the ball in check. Having returned a good number of players who saw solid minutes a year ago, the defense is expected to take another step in the right direction. One of the areas where few faces are missing is on the defensive line.
“Only having lost one player on the D-line is huge,” said defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli. “That being D.L. Wilhite, that’s a sizeable loss… We’re going to be a solid group,” Botticelli continued. “Coach Kill said that this is a group that’s going to set the tone this year.”
Whereas Wilhite is the only starter not returning this season on the line, the secondary has to replace standouts Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire at the cornerback position. However, the coaches assure that the defensive backs have stood out as a great strength for this team. Cedric Thompson started eight games a year ago and has seen the secondary grow stronger as a unit during spring practice.
“Camp went really well,” Thompson said. “I feel like the defense, especially the secondary, we’ve been working really hard and we’re much more of a family now. We seem like we’ve got a strong bond to the point where if someone gets hurt we can put somebody right back in. We’re creating a lot of depth and a lot of chemistry back there so it feels really good.”
The one area where that depth and chemistry is not quite as in place at this point is in the linebacking corp. With three major contributors graduating, the comfort level isn’t quite as strong in the middle.
“If we said there was a concern position wise,” said Coach Kill, “it would be depth at linebacker right now. We’ve got to get four or five guys coming in to get here.”
That being said, many players like newcomer Damien Wilson and Lamonte Edwards have impressed in practice and Saturday will be a good opportunity to see who stands out. Additionally, a talented crop of freshman and junior college linebackers will arrive in the fall.
While many fans like to look at the raw statistics of a game to determine the success of the team or a player, many of the players will be looking for that one moment to make a statement on Saturday.
“Every defensive player wants to make some plays, that’s what they want to come home with. A TFL, a sack, an interception, that’s what a defensive player wants.”
Regardless of the outcome, Saturday will be a good chance to (hopefully) enjoy some sun and catch a game-like atmosphere. Despite the scrimmage status, don’t expect the competition to be anything less than what you would see in a regular season contest. The players are just as amped up for this one as the fans.
“I’m excited, I feel like we’re going to be really good,” said Cedric Thompson. “I think it’s going to be a really close game. I think the offense is going to be really good, the defense is as well. I think it’ll be a low scoring game." Thompson continued, "it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’ll be good to see how young players play and how old players play as well.”
Weather Forecast for Saturday's Spring Game: 71, Sunny
As the Minnesota weather finally starts to feel like spring, the Gopher football team’s spring season is winding to a close. The Gophers have used their 13 practices so far to build off of their first bowl game since 2009.
“I feel like we’ve just been getting better and better ever since that game,” running back Rodrick Williams said. “Everybody just came together that game.”
The Gopher offense will look to show how much it has grown at the scrimmage this Saturday. Coaches and players alike believe that the team has done what it needed to do during the spring.
“I think our receivers have stepped it up and made some plays,” head coach Jerry Kill said of the offense’s practice efforts. “Our young quarterbacks have done a good job. They’ve seen a lot of different coverages. They’re learning a lot. We’ve been pleased.”
In addition to returning quarterbacks Philip Nelson, Mitch Leidner and Dexter Foreman, true freshman Chris Streveler has been participating in practice after enrolling early at the U. Leidner said that the high number of reps spread among the quarterbacks will help them as captains’ practices start later in the offseason. All will likely see snaps in Saturday’s spring game.
“Getting one more time with the young quarterbacks, one more time getting in a game-like situation, is a good thing,” Kill said.
The Gophers’ earlier indoor scrimmages helped give them an idea of what they need to improve heading into the outdoor finale. Nelson said that they know what they need to do, but just need to do a better job executing it perfectly.
“We always talk about putting ourselves in a reasonable third-down situation, if not getting it before then,” he said. “I think a lot of our goals this offseason have revolved around third down and being able to move forward from them.”
While the quarterbacks’ progress and chemistry with their experienced wide receivers (like Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte) will be a focal point of the spring game, Gophers fans can expect to see a lot of running plays, too. The ground game is a big part of Minnesota’s identity, and Kill said that Williams, Donnell Kirkwood, David Cobb and Cole Banham have had a good spring. The run game will be the key to the Gophers’ attack, especially now that the offensive line has another year of experience.
“When you have a young team, it’s fun, because they grow in front of you every day,” Kill said.
Not only will the spring game provide one more opportunity for improvement, but it will also be a chance to just play outdoors.
“We just want to get out there, have some fun in front of the fans and get in a game-like atmosphere,” Nelson said.