Brady Hoke says there isn’t a quarterback controversy at Michigan, no matter how well Devin Gardner played Saturday in a 35-13 victory at Minnesota.
More important, there might not be one for 2013, either.
Gardner, playing quarterback for the first time in almost a year, completed 12 of 18 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns to help the Wolverines keep the Little Brown Jug.
It was an impressive performance in place of injured Denard Robinson, especially since Gardner wasn’t able to throw to one of Robinson’s best receivers — Gardner himself.
“He did a nice of managing the team,” Hoke said during his postgame press conference. “I think we had four drives of more than 79 yards. He possessed the ball a little bit for us. I thought he did a great job.”
Hoke also stressed after the game that the job is still Robinson’s, as soon as he recovers from a nerve injury in his elbow, but Gardner now is the firm favorite to take over in 2013. Russell Bellomy, the other main candidate, went 3-for-16 in relief of Robinson in last week’s loss to Nebraska, throwing three interceptions.
Bellomy’s performance, and an unspecified injury that wasn’t announced until after the Minnesota game, meant Gardner was moved back from receiver to quarterback for the Wolverines.
Early in the game, he looked like someone who had spent the last year catching a ball instead of throwing one. He threw an interception and led the Wolverines to just nine yards of offense in the first quarter.
Midway through the second quarter, though, Gardner started to show the form that made him a top quarterback prospect coming out of high school. Although he doesn’t have Robinson’s speed, Gardner can run quite well, and his elusiveness let him avoid the Minnesota rush before hitting Drew Dileo for a 45-yard touchdown pass.
Gardner threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to Jeremy Gallon, and hit Gallon and Roy Roundtree on 47-yard passes to set up scoring drives. Gardner also had a 19-yard run on third down to keep another drive alive and finished his day with a two-yard scramble, bulling his way through tacklers to lunge into the end zone.
The victory is crucial for Michigan’s chances to win the Legends Division, but it also has major implications for the quarterback position in the short and long terms. Hoke — who has become like Lions coach Jim Schwartz when it comes to hiding injuries — said he’s optimistic Robinson will play Saturday against Northwestern.
But that’s the same thing Hoke said last week. Even his players were confused. Many thought Robinson might play against Minnesota until the final moments before kickoff, while Hoke had known for days that his star would be sidelined.
Gardner’s strong performance against Minnesota means — no matter how long Robinson is sidelined — the team and fans will have confidence in their quarterback.
“He fashions himself as a quarterback,” Hoke said of Gardner. “He made the move to (receiver) help us as a football team. It tells you a little bit about him, his character and what he believes in Michigan.”
In the long term, Gardner’s return to quarterback also means Shane Morris — Michigan’s star recruit — won’t have to come to Ann Arbor next fall as a savior. That’s especially important since, no matter how good Morris is, he will be coming off a senior year lost to mononucleosis.
Michigan still needs more from its running game — Fitzgerald Toussaint’s 70 yards look good only because of a 41-yard score after the outcome was decided — but Gardner and a strong defense mean the Wolverines have a good chance of beating Northwestern and Iowa to keep the pressure on Nebraska.
And then comes Ohio State, a game that could have championship implications for Michigan for the first time in years.