Coming into the Minnesota game, it was starting to look bad.
To say there were questions surrounding Michigan's quarterback situation would be a serious understatement. Denard Robinson's bizarre injury combined with the unproductive performance of redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy gave many of the Maize and Blue faithful cause for freakout.
It has long been a criticism from outsiders (and some insiders) that Michigan's offense relies too much on Denard Robinson. Play-by-play announcers, color commentators, sports writers and pundits constantly mention how Denard accounts for 75-78% of the total offense. With him out, and Bellomy struggling, what happens?
Does Michigan still compete for the Big Ten championship? Can they even win another game? These questions raised concerns for Michigan's future in 2012, and their future in 2013: When Denard leaves, will Bellomy improve enough to be the starter? Would wide receiver Devin Gardner have to move back under center? Can Shane Morris possibly be good enough to start as a true freshman?
All of this was aggravated by the fact that Devin Gardner--Denard's backup in 2011--struggled mightily in the spring game, and was outperformed by Bellomy.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges experimented with Gardner and wide receiver and found that he was doing surprisingly well there. It was starting to look like Gardner's future at quarterback was basically over.
Then the Denard injury happened, and Russell Bellomy showed that he was not ready to take the reins. More negativity surfaced: Was Bellomy unprepared because Borges had focused so much time on Denard? Did Bellomy simply get no help from receivers and veterans when he needed it? Or is he just not that good?
There was maybe a small glimmer of hope when Michigan fans learned that Denard was slated to start against Minnesota. Maybe the elbow-nerve injury he suffered wasn't so bad. Maybe Michigan wouldn't lose this game.
Then, minutes before the game kicked off, Jon Jansen, a Big Ten Network sideline reporter and former Wolverine offensive tackle, asked Michigan head coach Brady Hoke point-blank the question that was on everyone's mind: Was Denard Robinson starting?
"No," Hoke said. "His elbow hasn't quite healed to the point we wanted it to."
So, who plays quarterback?
"Devin Gardner," he answered.
The Michigan fanbase instantly braced for another implosion.
It had been reported earlier in the week that Gardner had been taking snaps at quarterback, but this was not seen as encouraging news. Everyone had assumed that Gardner had fully transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver, and taking a few snaps in practice for one week seemed like hardly enough preparation for the starting job. Most fans held out hope that Denard would return as starter.
So, after stopping Minnesota's opening drive, the Michigan offense came out onto the field, with Devin Gardner under center. And much to the dismay of Michigan fans, it exactly didn't start well.
Michigan's first two offensive drives ended with a three-and-out and a Gardner interception on a roll out. The defenses held each other scoreless as they entered the second quarter tied 0-0.
Minnesota then struck first with a touchdown pass to tight end John Rabe, creating a 7-0 lead. Gopher fans cheered like mad as color commentator Chris Martin gushed about the possibility that Minnesota might actually win the Jug for the first time since 2005.
What followed completely left TCF Bank Stadium speechless. After Minnesota had sacked Devin Gardner on a 2nd-and-9 play from the Gophers' 37, Michigan was put back into a very unfavorable 3rd-and-17 from Minnesota's 45. As many Michigan fans are well aware, the Wolverines aren't the best at converting huge distance third downs with an inexperienced quarterback.
But this time, something slightly different happened. On that third down, Devin Gardner scrambled frantically as he was rushed by Minnesota defenders, turned back the other way, ran towards the Michigan sideline, and--to everyone's simultaneous and collective WTF--heaved that sucker deep.
Forty-five yards down the field, there was Drew Dileo, wide open in the endzone.
Devin Gardner exhaled with relief and uttered a quick prayer of thanks.
Michigan owned the momentum from then on. Minnesota never recovered. Their touchdown to John Rabe in the second quarter to go up 7-0 had been their only chance to keep it close. The Gophers only sniffed a pair of field goals for the rest of the game.
Gardner, meanwhile, passed for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed for another score. Not bad for a guy who's never started a game at quarterback and had been playing a different position for half of the season.
His play, combined with the
resurgent somewhat improved power running game (at least compared to last week against Nebraska) by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Thomas Rawls, left every Michigan fan thinking two things:
1. What... the... heck... is... going... on??
2. Devin... Gardner????
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Devin Gardner. You know, that 6'4" zealot of an athlete that was kind of rated five-stars coming out high school and who some speculated would be a better fit for Borges's offense than Denard? That Devin Gardner.
The sheer poise of the junior from Inkster, MI, who we all had high hopes for but had given up on, could not have been more of a surprise. He played exceptionally well given the circumstance, looking less like the shaky, uncertain backup and more like the confident "This is my team" starter, and once he got his feet right there was no stopping him.
After the utter implosion last week against Nebraska, Gardner's performance was the type that bears out a slow-motion clap and goes along perfectly with sappy, saccharinely inspirational music like from that Northwestern Mutual commercial. And if you're a fan of sappy, saccharinely inspirational music, watching Gardner throw that hugely improbable, totally-out-of-USC's-playbook deep pass to Dileo while listening to it may just bring a tear to your cynical, jaded eye. It was effin' beautiful.
Chantel Jennings of Wolverine Nation is of the opinion that Gardner's play is conducive to what Michigan would look like post-Denard:
Against Minnesota, Gardner was just as effective passing under center as he was in the pro-style set, though he accounted for 18 more yards in the shotgun formation. In both the pro set and the shotgun, he completed six passes and threw three incompletions. However, both touchdowns were scored with Gardner in the gun.
And in the run game, Michigan favored being under center, with all three rushing touchdowns coming out of that formation. The Wolverines appeared in that set about twice as often on running plays, but per rush attempt, Michigan was more effective in the shotgun.
It was a different look, and after Bellomy's disappointing performance against Nebraska and Gardner's surprising performance against Minnesota, the latter is what Michigan fans could be looking forward to as they peek to next season.
While I do agree with the points that the established run game, snaps from under center, and deep throw attempts are all strong indicators of Al Borges's pro-style 2013 blueprint, the best plays of the game came from long passes that required a lot of accuracy and a little bit of luck, and I hardly think Gardner scrambling like a chicken with its head cut off and then tossing up a he-did-not-just-throw-that touchdown pass to Dileo was Borges's plan all along. The "totally-out-of-USC's-playbook" thing mentioned above was a joke.
Gardner's performance was stellar (again, especially given the circumstance), but let's not go crazy. He got a great deal of help from his receivers and was given what at times seemed like hours to throw by the offensive line. On plays when protection broke down, Gardner either scrambled for a quick pick-up, or his running ability drew safeties and linebackers in, which left Minnesota's already shaky pass coverage more vulnerable.
And let's not forget that this was Minnesota, a team that lost to three Big Ten teams handily before coming to this game. The Gophers are significantly improved and far more competitive, but they weren't as intimidating to Gardner as Nebraska was to Bellomy.
Gardner did more than just help Michigan win on Saturday. He showed the poise and competence of a starter, and that's what is probably the most encouraging. On that, Chantel is correct: when Denard graduates, Michigan fans can at least know in some area of their minds that the Wolverines have a quarterback who can carry them through 2013.
That was arguably the biggest question going into this game, and if Michigan's performance against Minnesota is any indication, Devin Gardner answered it.