It was a slow start for both the Gopher offense and defense in 2014's first game. The offense struggled to get any rhythm and the defense was on their heels for much of the first quarter. Fortunately Eastern Illinois was struggling more. The Gophers eventually took advantage of the Panther mistakes and moved the ball enough to earn a 42-20 win.
The feeling that the Gophers were going to own the line of scrimmage and run at will against the Eastern Illinois Panthers was fulfilled on the first offensive play. David Cobb took the handoff on the game's first play and bulled his way to 11 yards. But that was as good as it was going to get for quite a while. The Gopher offense managed exactly 10 more yards the rest of the quarter. 21 total yards in the first quarter yet the Gophers managed to end the quarter with a 7-0 lead. The lone touchdown came courtesy of a botched snap by Eastern Illinois that was recovered by Alex Keith at the 5 yard line. Three plays later the Gophers scored the first touchdown of the season on a Mitch Leidner 2-yard run.
The second quarter was slightly better, 135 offensive yards and another touchdown; this one required a 90-yard drive. The Gophers took the ball on their own 10 and went 90 yards on 9 plays. Leidner was 4/4 on the drive and capped it with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Donovan Jones.
The Gophers held a 14-0 lead at half but the story was really more about the Eastern Illinois mistakes than it was about the Gophers execution and dominance. Five penalties, a lost fumble on their own 5-yard line, a 17-yard loss on a fumble to kill their opening drive and a bad play on a bad pass by an EIU corner really gave the Gophers both of their touchdowns.
The second half was a different story. The defense forced a 3-and-out on the Panther's first drive and special teams finished it off with an Eric Murray blocked punt, recovered by Logan Hutton for a Gopher touchdown and a 21-0 lead. After that the route was on. The defense began forcing turnovers and breaking up passes. The rushing attack started getting over 4 yards per carry and we ended up seeing the second string playing the majority of the 4th quarter. It was 35-0 before Eastern scored a few late touchdowns against the second string defense but at no point in the second half was this game in any doubt.
The end result was a resounding win. But those who watched and even if you just spent some time studying the box score, there is reason to be concerned. Chiefly, Mitch Leidner did little to put fears to rest about his ability to lead this passing attack out of the cellar of the Big Ten. He finished completing 9 of 17 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. He added two rushing touchdowns as well. Not terrible numbers but his passing was erratic and this was against an inexperienced FCS secondary. I think we were all hoping to see more. The optimist in me wants to believe that this was just working through kinks in game one and getting used to playing at game speed. Hopefully next week we will see marked improvement against Middle Tennessee State.
Defensively I saw several things I liked against what is a fairly talented offense. I loved seeing some of the big hits by Damien Wilson, he was active all over the field with a dropped interception, a half sack and lead the team with 10 tackles. I also really liked how active our defensive backs were. We had one interception officially and 9 pass breakups by 8 different players. Damien Wilson dropped a sure pick-6, Jalen Myrick also dropped an interception and the true freshman, Craig James had two break-ups.
I think we also saw glimpses of some play-makers tonight. Berkley Edwards showed us some kind of speed we aren't used to seeing as he scored 2 touchdowns on 4 carries. And Donovahn Jones had a nice night with 3 catches for 57 yards and a touchdown.
This is far from a finished product but a 42-point night and a win is still a 42-point night and a win. There are plenty of things this team needs to work on while we also saw some nice things in other areas. A work in progress but it is awfully fun to have Gopher Football back!