ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Devin Gardner is still the quarterback at Michigan — at least most of the time.
Gardner was the star of Michigan’s 42-17 victory over Iowa, running for three touchdowns and throwing for three more, but Denard Robinson’s new role might have been the bigger story.
In a scheme drawn up by offensive coordinator Al Borges, Robinson returned from injury to snaps at tailback, wide receiver and quarterback. Robinson hadn’t played since sustained nerve damage in his passing elbow during Michigan’s Oct. 27 loss at Nebraska.
The Big House crowd gave Robinson a standing ovation when he was recognized during pregame Senior Day ceremonies, and roared again when he took the field for Michigan’s first offensive play. Instead of taking his normal quarterback position, he lined up at running back next to Gardner and took a pitch for a three-yard run.
Robinson also caught a screen pass on Michigan’s first drive, and later busted out his specialty — a 40-yard gain on an option keeper from the quarterback position. He led Michigan with 98 yards rushing on 13 carries, and caught two passes for 24 yards.
“I got cleared to practice earlier this week, and when coach Borges suggested this new role, I was all for it,” he said. “This was my last game in this stadium, and I wanted to get on the field.”
Robinson had thrown a few passes in the pregame warm-ups, but didn’t try one in the game. He smiled when asked if he could have thrown if needed.
“I guess we’ll find out next week,” he said, referring to Michigan’s game at Ohio State.
Gardner also thinks having two multiposition players — he went back to wide receiver when Robinson was at quarterback — will give the Buckeyes something to worry about.
“They are definitely going to have to think about that,” he said. “If they don’t, that’s fine with us.”
Robinson’s comeback drew cheers Saturday, but the day belonged to his current and future replacement. Gardner became the first Michigan player to account for six touchdowns since Steve Smith did it twice in the 1980s.
“Did he really have six touchdowns?” Brady Hoke asked. “I wasn’t keeping track. I guess he was pretty good.”
Gardner completed 18 of 23 passes for 314 yards and rushed nine times for 37 more. He led Michigan on six straight touchdown drives to start the game before throwing an interception with a 42-10 fourth-quarter lead.
“I never thought I’d be able to do things like this,” said Gardner, who is expected to be Michigan’s quarterback next year and could be back in 2014 if he’s granted a retroactive medical redshirt for his injury-shortened freshman season. “I’ve gotten a chance to play quarterback at Michigan, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to take advantage of it.”
Gardner wasn’t one of the seniors being honored before the game, but he’s certainly earned the respect of the players who were leaving Michigan Stadium for the last time.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” said Roy Roundtree. “He’s stayed humble and shown all of us what he can do.”
All of Michigan’s offensive players were a little quieter after the game than normal, after witnessing tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint suffer a severe injury to his left leg. Toussaint was hit by two Iowa defenders at the same time, and replays showed his left shin buckling in a grotesque manner.
Hoke didn’t give many details, saying that he wanted to make sure Toussaint’s mother had been properly informed. Hoke did say that the redshirt junior was at UM Medical Center and undergoing surgery for a leg injury.
“I’ve never seen Fitz in that kind of pain,” Gardner said. “I just started praying.”
Robinson, who served as a mentor to Toussaint during his early-season suspension for drunk driving, said it was a very emotional moment.
“I never wanted to see anything like that — Fitz is like a brother to me and to all of us,” Robinson said. “It’s tough to see your brother lying there, hurting like that, and knowing there’s nothing you can do to help him.”
Still, at the end of the day, Robinson and Roundtree’s memories of Saturday will revolve around that last walk off the field with 113,000 fans cheering another victory.
“There were just so many thoughts going through my mind when I was coming off the field,” Robinson said. “I’ve had so many memories here, some bad but mostly good. I wasn’t thinking about any one game, just about how fast my four years went. I guess they aren’t kidding when they say that time goes fast when you are enjoying yourself.
“I just wish I could say thank you to every person who has been at one of my games here. It’s been amazing to play in front of 110,000 fans every time.”