By Joe Perovich | KFAN.com
Minnesota opened its 2014 season with a victory Thursday night, defeating Eastern Illinois 42-20 in front of an announced crowd of 44,344.
Embarking on his first season as the Gophers standalone starter at quarterback, Mitch Leidner converted on 9-of-17 pass attempts for 144 yards, one touchdown and two rushing touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman RB Berkley Edwards rushed four times for 60 yards and two touchdowns in his Gophers debut. His longest run came with 2:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, when he turned a routine draw play meant for draining what was left on the clock into an electrifying 42-yard rushing touchdown run up the EIU sideline.
"He's lightning in a bottle," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "We [have to] find a way to keep feeding him the ball, and we will."
Edwards wasn't the only weapon on Minnesota's offense to find the end zone for the first time in their career.
Sophomore Donovahn Jones, whose offseason progression was the focus of many, capped off a nine play, 90-yard drive late in the second quarter with a 35-yard touchdown reception.
Jones finished with three receptions for 57 yards, and was Minnesota's only wide receiver to catch a pass all game. However, the meager output can be partially contributed to the absence of sophomore Drew Wolitarsky, who was scratched from the lineup at kickoff.
Senior running back David Cobb rushed 14 times for 71 yards, and sophomore tight end Maxx Williams had two catches for 57 yards. Neither were able to find the end zone on Thursday night, but neither was featured as much as both figure to be further on into the schedule.
While the Gophers first-team defense pitched a shutout through three quarters, defensive tackles Scott Ekpe and Yoshoub Timms both sustained knee injuries in the first half that forced them to exit the game for good. There's no info on the severity of either injury at this point.
The Gophers were already set to be thin on the defensive line prior to the game when Kill announced starting DE Michael Amaefula would not play.
"Defensively, we played very well. I don't think the score indicates the true meaning of that," Kill said. "I think the biggest worry I have is we got banged up on the defensive line pretty good, and that's a pretty big concern right now."
Minnesota was helped to victory by the terrific performances of many of its special teams contributors. Redshirt junior punter Peter Mortell averaged a tremendous 51 yards in five opportunities and placekicker Ryan Santoso, Chris Hawthorne's successor, was 6-for-6 on extra points.
But the biggest assistance from the special teams unit came with 13:20 left in the third quarter.
Down 14-0, Eastern Illinois lined up to punt deep in its own territory. When the ball was snapped, the versatile Eric Murray beelined to the punter and was able to redirect the ball before it was away. It bounced around and was batted into the air before senior Logan Hutton was able to secure it and carry it across the goal line.
Six true freshmen debuted for Minnesota throughout the game. On the defensive side of the ball, Steven Richardson, Gaelin Elmore, Craig James, Jon Celestin and Andrew Stelter all saw the field in limited capacity. On offense, tight end Brandon Lingen entered the game late and caught one pass for 12 yards.
Minnesota, 1-0, hosts Middle Tennessee State next Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Joe Perovich covers Minnesota Sports, namely Gophers and Timberwolves, for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Gophers or Timberwolves updates and news, follow Joe on Twitter: @JoePerovich.