MINNEAPOLIS — No Denard Robinson? No problem for the Michigan Wolverines.
Robinson, Michigan’s dual-threat quarterback and leading rusher, was dinged up in last weekend’s loss to Nebraska. His status for Saturday’s game against Minnesota remained a question throughout the week, but it appeared early on as if he would play.
Robinson ended up not playing against the Gophers, but it didn’t matter for Michigan, as the Wolverines beat Minnesota, 35-13, at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota’s defense fully expected Robinson and his elbow to be ready to go. And from what Michigan coach Brady Hoke said throughout the week, the Wolverines expected Robinson to be healthy enough to play, too.
But after taking a few warm-up snaps Saturday, Robinson stood idly by as the rest of Michigan’s quarterbacks threw passes to the Wolverines receivers. Just before kickoff, the team announced Robinson was officially out with an undisclosed injury.
That meant quarterback-turned-wide receiver Devin Gardner became a wide receiver-turned-quarterback. Saturday’s start gave Gardner his first snaps at quarterback this year after he attempted 23 passes as a backup last year and 10 as a freshman.
Gardner certainly didn’t look the part of a receiver who stepped into the quarterback role. The junior completed 12 of his 18 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He also gained 21 yards rushing, including a 2-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter.
“He hadn’t played quarterback this year for them. I think as he got settled in, he did some good things, there’s no question,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “He moved around well and gave them an opportunity to be successful. He made some plays.”
Gardner’s most memorable play Saturday came on Michigan’s first touchdown of the game. Facing a third-and-17 from the Gophers’ 45-yard line, Gardner connected with Drew Dileo in the end zone to tie the game, 7-7. Gardner was pursued in the backfield by a host of Minnesota defenders, but the Michigan quarterback evaded the pressure and scrambled across the field to buy time before firing deep downfield to Dileo.
Gardner’s ability to keep the play alive with his feet resulted in a breakdown in the pass coverage for Minnesota — which had been solid all year. When Gardner let go of the pass, Dileo was wide open in the end zone.
“It’s difficult to guard a receiver for about 20 seconds on a play where the guy’s scrambling around,” Gophers cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. “It just so happened the receiver got open and he made a play, threw it up there and the receiver came down with the ball.”
Though Gardner hadn’t attempted many passes in his time at Michigan — just 33 entering Saturday — the 45-yard completion was the longest of his career. His previous long was 32 yards last season.
Gardner’s 45-yard touchdown toss capped a 12-play, 91-yard Wolverines scoring drive. Gardner was instrumental in leading Michigan to its second touchdown on its following possession. Though it was running back Thomas Rawls scoring from 2 yards out, the touchdown was set up by passes of 17 and 22 yards from Gardner, as well as a 17-yard run by the mobile quarterback to bring Michigan inside the red zone.
Holding on to a 14-7 lead in the third quarter, Gardner again connected on a deep pass, this time to wide receiver Jeremy Gallon for 47 yards to the Minnesota 22-yard line. Five plays later, Gardner found Gallon for a 10-yard score and a 21-7 Wolverines lead. The play was reviewed but was upheld for the second touchdown of the day for Gardner — doubling his career total.
With Robinson standing on the sideline, Gardner was making throws that Robinson simply hasn’t made this season. Before injuring his elbow last Saturday against Nebraska, Robinson had completed 53.6 percent of his passes (89 of 166), one of the worst percentages in the Big Ten. Though Robinson can do damage with his legs — his 118.2 rushing yards per game were third in the conference — he doesn’t present that same threat with his inaccurate arm.
Minnesota’s defense was prepared to face the mobile Robinson. As Gardner carved up the secondary, it appeared as though the Gophers weren’t ready for an aerial assault.
“We didn’t know if (Robinson) was going to play or not, so we just had to prepare like he was going to play,” Stoudermire said. “When we saw Gardner out there, he’s a really mobile quarterback, also. It’s almost the same ability as Denard Robinson, so we had to play the same way.”
When Robinson was knocked out last Saturday at Nebraska, he was replaced by Russell Bellomy, who went just 3-for-16 and completed as many passes to the Nebraska defense as he did to his own teammates. So Gardner took snaps this week at quarterback, making the transition from receiver.
On Saturday, Gardner sure didn’t look like a guy who hadn’t played the position all year.
“He fashions himself as a quarterback,” Hoke said. “He really has made the move to help us as a football team. That tells you a little bit about him and his character and he believes in Michigan.”