Photos by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.comOne week is a lot of time to prepare for something. I'm not frustrated or angry that Devin Gardner didn't play against Nebraska when Denard Robinson went down because for most of the season, Gardner has been primarily seeing snaps at receiver and the work he does put in at quarterback was probably just to make sure his throwing form didn't revert to his shot put motion from high school. Gardner's remarkable output on Saturday also carries one major caveat: Minnesota. Don't forget that last year, Minnesota was in contention for being the worst Big Ten football team in the history of the conference or that Michigan beat them 58-0. Whatever you think of Russell Bellomy, Michigan could have won this game with him under center.
However, Gardner showed something that he's been unable to produce during his time at Michigan: consistency. The first three drives of the game, spanning the entire first quarter, were vintage Gardner: 1/3 for 7 yards, 1 INT, and a sack for six yards. In the second quarter, though, Gardner settled down and found his rhythm, even throwing one of those scrambling, wide-open touchdown passes that Ohio
What was most impressive was the way in which Gardner looked suited for this offense. His passing motion was still janky, but he stood in the pocket and delivered passes more confidently and impressively than Denard has in two years. His ability to step into throws and deliver a pass, even in the face of pressure, showed marked improvement over what Michigan has gotten from Denard or what Gardner has shown to date.
Gardner looked like a Jim Tressel-led Terrelle Pryor: an athletic, tall quarterback being forced to play under center and make plays only when he's asked to while allowing the defense to carry the load. In this game, Gardner was able to do so, but this was against a Minnesota team that allowed 44 points to New Hampshire and 28 to Western Michigan and Purdue. Does Gardner's obvious improvement actually resemble a sustainable winning offense? That's debatable.
Al Borges should also come in for some praise, though Saturday's game does not bode well for the future of Denard in the shotgun. Forced to play a bit more conservatively, Borges put Gardner under center for much of the game, a move that actually seemed to work. Instead of running the throwback screen and one predictable running back iso from the I-formation, Borges opened up the offense and forced the Gopher defense to start reacting to play action and counter plays from under center. This looked like a more fully formed offense albeit one that Michigan fans didn't want to see until Shane Morris has taken over the reins.
Regarding the rest of this season, Gardner's performance on Saturday probably signifies a permanent move away from wide receiver. With a lingering injury to Denard--one that can seemingly knock him out of the game at any time--Gardner sitting in the wings will be important if Michigan wants to win close games like the one in Nebraska. The coaches hedged their bets at the beginning of the year. A senior Denard will be able to properly protect himself but he needs more dangerous wide receivers. Gardner proved not to be a great receiver and Denard suffered a fluke injury. Michigan still lost the game's you would expect them to lose (Alabama, Notre Dame) and one that may have gone the other with a better backup QB, and they didn't upset anyone because of Gardner's presence, but the move of Gardner to wide receiver was one we all thought should happen and looked promising enough that the coaches really shouldn't bear too much blame.
There's no quarterback controversy this year, though there will be one to start 2013. Expect a few more formations for Gardner as the season rolls on like the ones Borges installed last year. Until Denard is off campus, though, this is still his team.
- Saturday was a weird day. Despite Michigan winning with a guy who hadn't played quarterback all season, it felt like a day full of losses. Notre Dame won because Pitt choked the game away and Michigan State lost because Mark Dantonio wanted 19 yards of field position instead of a chance to ice the game with a 4th and 2 from the Nebraska 39 (!!!). I want Notre Dame to lose because fuck Notre Dame, but Michigan State losing has a real impact on Michigan's chances to win the Big Ten. Mark Dantonio: you're stupid.
- Fitz Toussaint: still probably broken. If he can't get anything going against Minnesota, he probably won't get anything going all year. Excise his late-game 41-yard touchdown scamper (which was impressive, but again, against Minnesota) and Fitz had 29 yards on 12 carries.
- If Denard had been playing quarterback in this game, the story this week would be about how well the wide receivers played. Those guys pulled in absolutely everything. Gardner sailed a few passes but not so high that the receivers couldn't pull them down.
- Jake Ryan: 5 tackles, 4 assists, 3 TFLs. I be like dang.
- Ryan may be Michigan's most impressive defensive player, but Quinton Washington is the most important. He is on his way to getting drafted in the late rounds next year if he keeps playing this well. You can tell immediately when Washington is off the field, and it seems like whenever he's inserted into the lineup again, he slashes into the backfield and causes havoc.
- Ondre Pipkins is still not ready for significant snaps, though it's good that the coaching staff is getting him on the field. He constantly gets pushed past the point of attack and out of plays. He has talent, but I am a little worried about him being a starter next year.
- If Michigan ever plays a team with an elite passing QB, they are in trouble. JT Floyd has been beaten badly the last few weeks only to watch passes sail out of bounds by a few yards. There are some cracks in the armor of Michigan's secondary that I fear a bowl opponent will attack.
Michigan gets Northwestern at home. The Wildcats are coming off of a bye week but previously beat Iowa in a game that probably should have been more lopsided than the final score shows. Michigan has played a few option teams now and has managed to more or less hold their offenses in check. Northwestern is probably more varied than Nebraska, but their offense isn't as prolific. This should be a too-close-for-comfort win, but a win nonetheless, regardless of who's playing quarterback.