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Minnesota Football: The Case for (or Against) Mitch Leidner

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Fans are split down the middle when it comes to the man under center. What can we expect from Mitch Leidner in his second season as the starting quarterback?

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The news that heralded quarterback recruit Demry Croft has impressed the coaching staff thus far in preseason camp and the suggestion that he could overtake Chris Streveler as No. 2 on the depth chart has opened the floodgates for certain fans to campaign for the Gophers to end the Mitch Leidner experiment and hand the reins over Croft.

Yes, there are actual fans suggesting we bench our redshirt junior quarterback and start a true freshman against the No. 2-ranked TCU Horned Frogs on September 3rd at TCF Bank Stadium.

I wish I was kidding.

So what did Mitch Leidner do to inspire a sea of doubters? Just led the Gophers to an 8-5 record last season, including road wins over Michigan and Nebraska, a blowout victory over Iowa, and a trip to the program's first New Year's Day bowl game since 1962. I also shouldn't have to remind Gopher fans that last year's team was a single win from being crowned champions of the Big Ten West.

But his stats didn't inspire much confidence, and our passing game issues were often most glaring when the team lost. Because of that, fans were quick to point the finger at Leidner. While a lot of the blame does rest on his shoulders, I don't think he is a complete failure like a lot of fans would have you believe.

Critics have argued that the quarterback position was the weak link keeping a good team from becoming a great team last year. There is no question that the Gophers' lack of a consistent passing game last season was the biggest hurdle the team had to overcome to compete against the upper echelons the Big Ten. In fact, with the loss of top target Maxx Williams and an unproven crop of talent left to fill the void, some pundits expect the Gophers' passing game to regress from last year's already anemic numbers.

But I don't think Leidner is as bad as he is made out to be. Let's take a look at his stat lines from last season's losses:

@ TCU - 12-for-26, 151 YDS, 0 TD, 3 INT
@ Illinois - 12-for-30, 240 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT
Ohio State - 7-for-19, 85 YDS, 0 TD, 2 INT
@ Wisconsin - 5-for-18, 95 YDS. 0 TD, 0 INT
Missouri - 21-for-31, 258 YDS, 1 TD, 0 INT

Against TCU, Leidner played with a sprained MCL and his poor performance was a reflection of that. It also didn't help that he was going up against one of the top defenses in the nation. I'm not trying to make excuses, but when you go up against defenses like TCU, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, chances are you're going to struggle unless you're a prolific passer, and Minnesota hasn't had one of those since Adam Weber.

As far as the Citrus Bowl goes, it was ultimately a losing effort, but Leidner was nowhere near the problem. Quite the contrary, actually. That Missouri defense was ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense, and 39th against the pass. These were no pushovers, and Leidner completed 14 consecutive passes against the Tigers, matching a school record. More importantly, he avoided turning the ball over for the most part, aside from a single fumble. Yet fans continued to peg him as the problem after the Citrus Bowl, and I continued to be baffled.

Let's take a look at his stat lines from a few of last season's biggest wins:

@ Michigan - 14-for-22, 167 YDS, 1 TD, 0 INT
Iowa - 10-for-13, 138 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT (w/ 11 RUSH ATT, 77 YDS)
@ Nebraska - 8-for-17, 135 YDS, 0 TD, 0 INT (w/ 14 RUSH ATT, 111 YDS, 2 TD)

From a statistics standpoint, obviously Leidner is nothing special, I'll give you that. But games are not won in the box scores. They're won on the field. And if Leidner has proved anything, it's that he is a winner, plain and simple. I couldn't care less about his completion percentage if the scoreboard favors the Gophers when the game clock hits zero. You could very well build a compelling case that Leidner is a poor quarterback from his stats, but the scoreboard is all that matters in the end.

Let's not forget what he helped accomplish last season either. Who was the last Gopher quarterback to beat both Iowa and Michigan in the same season? You'd have to go back to 1967, when the Gophers under Murray Warmath captured both the Floyd of Rosedale and the Little Brown Jug. But unlike their 2014 counterparts, the '67 Gophers could not beat Nebraska. Leidner is not going to be hoisting the Heisman Trophy any time soon, but he has hoisted his fair share of rivalry trophies, and we can't take that for granted.

One of the biggest knocks against Leidner this preseason is also this idea that his development is complete. That after one full year as a starter, he has reached his ceiling. I don't understand that at all. If after this season we don't see marked improvement from Leidner, this argument will carry more weight. But I think condemning him as a lost cause this early in his career is a bit premature. Give the coaching staff some credit. I seem to recall a certain running back whose career as a Gopher amounted to zilch before he flipped the switch as a redshirt junior.

I'm not blind to the fact that the passing game needs to improve to keep this team in contention in the Big Ten West. But I feel confident the Gophers can do that with Leidner taking the snaps.

What do you think? Would you rather see Croft under center? Or are you OK with Leidner at the helm? Should we eliminate the quarterback position altogether?