- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Mitch Leidner started four games, threw 78 passes and ran the ball 102 times for Minnesota as a freshman last year.

He was still nervous for last week’s season opener. The Gophers were playing at home and under the lights, so even against an FCS opponent in Eastern Illinois, Leidner felt some jitters.

“He was wound pretty tight when the game started, which we were hoping wouldn’t be the case but ended up being the case,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s such a competitive kid. I think he wanted to go out and win the Super Bowl on his first five throws.”

Eventually he settled down. Leidner completed 9 of 17 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown and had seven carries for 15 yards and two more scores in the 42-20 victory over Eastern Illinois. He took two sacks and lost a fumble, however, and the overall sporadic production kept alive concerns perpetuated late last season when the Gophers went 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown. They were last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

This is a power-running team, so the Gophers aren’t looking for 300-yard games by Leidner to win. They’ll need him to connect on plenty of third-and-long passes down the field, though, to be balanced enough to keep up in the conference.

Leidner flashed a confident smile when asked about his anxiety, insisting he’ll be more relaxed Saturday when Minnesota hosts Middle Tennessee. Limegrover joked that the team might try to prod Leidner to run a mile around the stadium to loosen up.

“This next game we’re not waiting eight months to play it,” Leidner said. “Hopefully I’ll get a run called early on, too, get a hit early on to get calmed down, but I’ll be fine.”

Here are some key nuggets to know about the game between the Golden Gophers and the Blue Raiders:

RUNNING MAN? NOT REALLY: Leidner runs hard, almost looking to initiate contact, but the coaches have tried to teach him to avoid it. Leidner and Philip Nelson combined to carry the ball 195 times last season, an average of 15 per game, but Limegrover has reduced the number of designed runs by the most important player on the field. Those used to account for about 30 percent of the playbook.

“We can get the ball in different guys’ hands. Doesn’t have to be quarterback-centered nearly as much as it was,” Limegrover said.

COMING AND GOING: Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky and defensive end Michael Amaefula are expected back from injuries that kept them out of the opener, but the Gophers will be without Alex Keith, who started in Amaefula’s place, and starting defensive tackle Scott Ekpe this week. Ekpe will likely be out for the rest of the year after hurting his right knee.

SOLID DEBUT: Quarterback Austin Grammer made his first college start last week for Middle Tennessee, completing 15 of 17 passes for 250 yards in leading the Blue Raiders to a 61-7 victory over FCS foe Savannah State.

STEP UP: Middle Tennessee, which finished 6-2 in its first season in Conference USA and 8-5 overall after losing to Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl, will face a Big Ten team for the fifth time. They lost to Illinois (48-20) in 1998 and (35-6) in 2000, Minnesota (24-17) in 2010 and Purdue (27-24) in 2011. The last time the Blue Raiders beat a team from one of the major five conferences was 2012, with a 49-28 win at Georgia Tech.

“We are getting better as a program,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “We are not going to be in awe in going up there to Minnesota. We’ll approach it just like we do any game.”

MEETING AGAIN: Middle Tennessee was the last team the Gophers beat under previous coach Tim Brewster, who was fired six games into a nine-game losing streak that followed the opening win over the Blue Raiders year. Middle Tennessee is on the schedule again in 2017, with a Sept. 16 visit to TCF Bank Stadium.