By Mark Snyder, Detroit Free Press –
MINNEAPOLIS — For all of Michigan’s depth concerns throughout the team, there seems to be no problem at quarterback.
A week of concern surrounded the Wolverines’ offense following Denard Robinson’s elbow injury.
What would happen? Would he play? Could he be effective? Was there anyone behind him?
Devin Gardner never worried about any of that.
The junior moved smoothly from wide receiver back to his home position of quarterback and on Saturday acted like he never left, carrying Michigan to a thorough 35-13 pounding of Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. He helped the Wolverines retain the Little Brown Jug, making them bowl-eligible and keeping their Big Ten Legends Division title hopes alive.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he made the decision Friday that Robinson wouldn’t play and Gardner said he was told he’d start just before Saturday’s game.
That timeline meant little, though as Gardner had dreamed of his first career start for the past three years.
That’s the curse of getting stuck behind a legend. Robinson never missed a full game, so Gardner finally moved to receiver this spring just to get on the field. He was productive, but nothing like the impact he had Saturday under center.
After a rocky first quarter when he threw an interception and Michigan (6-3, 4-1 Legends Division) totaled nine yards, he led the offense to more than 370 and five touchdowns in the final three quarters.
“I play quarterback, so I feel good,” said Gardner, who had 261 career passing yards entering the game. “All week I got a lot of reps so I prepared like I was going to be the starter. They said prepare because we never know what’s going to happen so you have to prepare like you’re going to start.”
Despite running what he described as a “safe” offense, limiting the quarterback runs because there were no options behind him with Robinson out and Russell Bellomy also injured, Gardner was able to take advantage in the passing game. He completed 12-of-18 for 234 yards, the second-highest total for a Michigan quarterback in the past 16 games.
Michigan may not have been as effective rushing the ball — Fitz Toussaint’s garbage-time 41-yard fourth-down touchdown was the only designed run longer than 12 yards — but Gardner managed the offense with few hitches.
Though the Wolverines would like to have strong field position, when they’re backed up, they want to be potent enough to capitalize. That’s what Gardner did on the first four scoring drives, all 76 yards or longer, including the second-quarter pair of 91 and 90 yards.
And it was the first time in Michigan’s 133-year history for consecutive 90-plus yard scoring drives — fittingly led by a quarterback making his first career start.
“It doesn’t surprise us,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “His ability, we gave him a lot of snaps obviously. He’s been in the offense enough, he knows most of it, maybe all of it. Being a receiver, that’s a whole different element but maybe helped his development. He did a nice job of managing the team… I thought he did a great job.”
With another dominant defensive performance — hitting that magic number of 13 again, the sixth time this season they’ve held an opponent below two touchdowns — the pressure was on the offense to earn back the respect lost the last two touchdown-less weeks.
“We said we’d talk about it at practice this week, just because it’s kind of embarrassing for a Michigan offense to not score a touchdown in two games, so it was certainly on our minds,” said Michigan receiver Drew Dileo, who opening the scoring, catching Gardner’s scrambling, dodging 45-yard end zone heave.
“It wasn’t as if we weren’t moving the ball,” Gardner said. “We just weren’t punching it in the red zone.”
In three chances Saturday, they knocked it in for touchdowns all three times.
Minnesota (5-4, 1-4) may be the worst team in the Legends Division, so this was no landmark for the Wolverines.
But with a four-practice quarterback, last week’s second-half meltdown and two weeks of struggles, Saturday was a breakthrough.