There was a point somewhere in the second half where Devin Gardner's jersey finally became more mud than cloth. Buried under a pile of green attackers and his own linemen, Gardner did what he always does. He paused on the ground before standing. He has done this all season, and every single time that moment of hesitation worries me. He doesn't spring up like Vincent Smith used to — a tiny ball of energy magnetically opposed to the turf. No, Gardner lingers there, he shakes it off, stands, and strides back to the huddle, still stiff from what just happened.
As his jersey became more caked with mud, his ribs and legs and head more battered and bruised, that moment of hesitation started to drag. Gardner would stay on the ground a little longer, waiting for someone to reach out a hand and lift him up from the turf once again. Given what had come before and all the game left ahead, you could hardly blame him.
It isn't a glowing stat line, and it certainly won't go down in the annals of Michigan quarterback performances in the same way games from earlier in the season will. Fourteen completions on 27 attempts. Two-hundred and ten yards. One interception without a single touchdown. And the kicker: seven sacks for a total loss of 49 yards.
Those sack yards, when counted against the passing totals, put Michigan's day throwing the ball into perspective. The Wolverines either gained or lost yards in big chunks. Nine of Gardner's 14 completions went for more than 10 yards, three of them greater than 20, the longest two being 35 yards to Jeremy Gallon on the first play of the day and 58 yards to Jehu Chesson that set up Michigan's final score of the game: a field goal before the end of the first half. Those were Gardner's nine brief respites from a day spent under near constant duress. He spent more time on his back behind the line of scrimmage than he did on the delivering end of enough yards for a first down.
Meanwhile, the player tasked with protecting him, the senior-most player on the line, the all-American, the sure-fire first round pick, seemed to be more concerned with a childish vendetta than the game at hand. Earlier in the week Taylor Lewan was asked about this game and Michigan State's defense, he spoke of being bullied in the past:
"Nobody likes to get bullied, and that's what they did two years ago -- they bullied us. That's tough for me to admit because I don't like getting bullied. It's going to be a physical game. A very physical game. We're not going to get bullied this year."
Those past instances are well documented. The last time the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing there were helmet twists, late hits, and a punch that Lewan obviously wouldn't forget. Football is a heated game and Michigan State players got caught on camera doing some things that I would like to think they would later regret. There is still always room for respect in football.
Lewan could have followed through on his word. He could have refused to let Michigan State bully him and the rest of Michigan by doing the only thing that you can: stand up to it, not stoop to your harasser's level.
Instead, Taylor became the bully: talking trash (as his team was moving backward) and grabbing Michigan State players' facemasks in the same way that Michigan State players had done two years ago.
Michigan spent the day losing yards, breaking pass protection, and stalling every single time it had the ball. Taylor Lewan spent the day doing the same things he complained about, refusing to get bullied by becoming the antagonist.
The whole thing broke my heart to watch. A little less than a year ago, Taylor Lewan stood in front of an assembled audience at Schembechler Hall and announced he was returning to Michigan. He talked about the team, the school, and all of it dripped with the devotion and heart that we as fans want our favorite players to espouse in college sports. It is a long road from that to this.
I'm not here to moralize. Lewan isn't a thug just like Gholston wasn't. These are kids playing an emotional game under more stress than we can imagine, standing in front of thousands of fans calling for blood. Sometimes in life we do bad things. Those things don't have to define us, unless we let them. That doesn't make me feel any better about what Taylor Lewan was involved in Saturday, and I hope it doesn't make him feel any better either.
On Saturday while Taylor Lewan was busy doing a heel turn, Devin Gardner showed everyone how to really stand up to bullying*. He got up. Again and again, after taking sacks and hits and running into brick walls. It wasn't always easy, and he wasn't always perfect (clearly pulling up short to avoid contact when he could have gotten a first down late), but as everything kept piling on top of him the only thing he did was sit there just a little longer on the turf to collect himself, then he stood up and went back to the huddle.
After Gardner's final play — a back shoulder fade that was decidedly not that, and easily intercepted by Darqueze Dennard — Pete, one of the guys that's written for The Only Colors for years, summed it up well.
That said, I respect Gardner 10x more after today. To take the shots he did and still run for 3-4 yards? Massive respect.— Pete Rossman (@PeteAtTOC) November 2, 2013
I couldn't agree with that more. Devin Gardner wasn't perfect on Saturday, but his performance makes me proud that he is the quarterback for this team. Taylor Lewan wasn't perfect on Saturday either. His performance doesn't make me feel so great.
All the quotes about "getting up" are cliched as hell for a reason: because it isn't easy, and in the end it shows a lot about who you are as a person and competitor.
This game won't be fondly remembered by Michigan fans, and even before it ended there were calls for someone else to take snaps; something that finally happened when Gardner got the merciful break he deserved on Michigan's final drive as Shane Morris stepped in to finish out the game.
But if we're going to define Devin Gardner by any single moment when his Michigan career is all said and done, there are few better to really capture what makes me respect him as a player more than those last few moments in the fourth quarter, when after yet another hard hit from the defense that left him prone and muddied, he rolled over, collected himself, and got up.
*(No, I did not see anything cheap from MSU in this game, which makes it even worse to consider just what Lewan spent the afternoon doing.)