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Gophers easily handle Eastern Illinois in opener

University of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner runs for a touchdown in the first quarter during a game against Eastern Illinois on Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota defeated Eastern Illinois 42-20. USA Today Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – Gophers coach Jerry Kill had so much respect for the Eastern Illinois Panthers that he compared them to North Dakota State, a lower-level team that has three straight national championships and two wins against his program.

Not even close.

Thursday’s opponent was ranked No. 11 in the Football Championship Subdivision, but Minnesota easily took care of Eastern Illinois 42-20 in the season opener at TCF Bank Stadium.

Kill expected more of a challenge, and it certainly started off that way for quarterback Mitch Leidner, who opened the game completing just 2-for-7 passes and fumbling after being sacked twice.

But the Gophers scored a punt block return touchdown, and the defense forced four turnovers to pick up where it left off last season despite losing Brock Vereen and Ra’Shede Hageman to the NFL.

Leidner, who finished 9 of 17 for 144 yards and three touchdowns (two on the ground), eventually settled down once the defense gave him great field position.

In the end, it was the perfect game for the Gophers to build the confidence they will need when the competition gets tougher the next two weeks against Middle Tennessee on Saturday at home and at Texas Christian on Sept. 13.

Entering the season, it was all about how far players such as Leidner, running back David Cobb, defensive end Theiren Cockran and safety Cedric Thompson could take this team.

Sure, it was an FCS opponent Thursday, but other playmakers emerged.

The game’s defensive most valuable player was by far junior defensive end Alex Keith, who replaced starter Michael Amaefula (leg injury) to finish with two fumble recoveries and one of the team’s three sacks.

Keith left the game himself in the fourth quarter, the third player to get knocked out with a knee injury. Yoshoub Timms and Scott Ekpe were sidelined earlier.

Having four defensive linemen hurt will be a big concern moving forward, especially since the group lacked depth to begin with.

One of the team’s deepest position is at running back, and that was proven Thursday with four players getting carries, including redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who finished with four carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yard burst in the fourth quarter. Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards last year, had 14 carries for 78 of the team’s 182 rushing yards.

Early growing pains weren’t surprising for an offense that struggled to get into the end zone last year, to the tune of 13 straight quarters without a touchdown.

When Leidner fell into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, it broke the early spell offensively.

Then the most impressive drive of the night went 90 yards in nine plays, capped by Donovahn Jones’ 35-yard touchdown catch to make it 14-0 in the second quarter.

The two-quarterback system didn’t work out so well for Eastern Illinois as starter Jalen Whitlow and Andrew Manley couldn’t get their offense on the board until scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with the Forum News Service.