MINNEAPOLIS — The 45-yard pass likely still haunts the dreams of Minnesota’s defense.
Facing a 3rd-and-17 from the Gophers’ 45-yard line in last year’s game at TCF Bank Staidum, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner did everything he could to buy time. He started running in circles, backtracking 10 yards to his own 45-yard line before scrambling to the left. Finally, nearly 10 seconds after the ball was snapped, Gardner fired deep downfield and found a wide-open Drew Dileo in the end zone. The long touchdown pass tied the game at 7-7 midway through the second quarter and served as a demoralizing blow to the Gophers.
Minnesota never recovered after that play, as Michigan went on to win 35-13. As the Gophers head to Ann Arbor this Saturday, the defense will once again be keying on Gardner.
“He’s a special athlete,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said of Gardner. “Last year we played hard and went nose to nose for a while, and then he scrambled around for about 10 minutes and throws a vertical route for a touchdown. … He’s a guy that you’ve got to keep contained as much as you can.”
That’s often easier said than done. Including the 45-yard touchdown, Gardner passed for 234 yards and two scores in last year’s win over Minnesota. That was his first start of the year, too, as he was filling in for the injured Denard Robinson. The Gophers knew that either of the two quarterbacks would be tough tests, but Gardner’s ability to scramble in the pocket to buy time proved too much for Minnesota’s defense.
“That’s definitely hard because sometimes we’re in coverage and we have to guard receivers. Then when he comes out and he runs, we’re worried about getting him and then we forget about our receiver,” said Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson. “That’s definitely a struggle but it’s something we really have to work on in practice all through this week.”
The Gophers did sack Gardner three times in that game, but the pressure the defense had on him the rest of the game wasn’t enough to contain the dual-threat quarterback.
“It’s kind of hard to read him — especially when he’s in the pocket — if he’s going to run or pass,” said Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. “I feel like us not really getting any hits on him or making him uncomfortable, it was kind of easy for him to make plays.”
Gardner’s stats from Michigan’s 4-0 start against nonconference opponents certainly don’t stand out as overly impressive. In four games, the junior has thrown eight interceptions, including three in a narrow 28-24 win over Akron.
Last week against UConn, Gardner was just 11-for-23 for 97 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns, with his longest pass going for only 17 yards. He hasn’t put up the same type of passing stats as he did a year ago during his sophomore season.
Still, the Wolverines believe Gardner will snap out of his early-season funk. The Gophers are just hoping it doesn’t happen against them.
“I think Devin is a guy who has a lot of confidence, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “Some of the miscues that we’ve had, it’s been more of making sure our fundamentals are what they need to be on every snap, and that’s part of being consistent.”
Yet while Hoke and Michigan remain confident, the Gophers sound opportunistic. Through five games, Minnesota has intercepted five passes. But the Gophers’ defense certainly has noticed some flaws in Gardner’s game during their film studies.
“I think he panics a lot,” Thompson said. “When he scrambles, he kind of just throws the ball. I think that’s where a lot of his picks come. But some picks were on tipped balls. Sometimes for a quarterback you get unlucky with tipped balls.”
Minnesota did intercept Gardner once in last year’s matchup. In fact, it was Thompson who stepped in front of a Gardner pass to stall Michigan’s first-quarter drive near midfield.
Still, it’s that 45-yard touchdown to a wide-open receiver that still stings the Gophers one season later. Minnesota has seen first-hand Gardner’s ability to scramble and make plays. While he can tuck the ball and run — he gained 103 yard on the ground against Akron and has already rushed for five touchdowns — it’s what Gardner does with his legs in the pocket before throwing that makes him a dangerous weapon for the Wolverines.
“Watching film clips or anything like that, I think some of his plays have come from broken plays, a protection breakdown and he steps up and steps around it,” Kill said. “A lot of times, a defensive back will take his eyes off who he’s covering and look back in the backfield to chase the quarterback, and then the receiver slips. That’s where he gets you. He does that several times. He made a couple great throws against us a year ago right on the money. … He just made some plays and he’s continued to do that through his career.”