Gardner sparks Michigan in 35-13 win at Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Denard Robinson wasn't ready to play after all, and Michigan never missed him.
Devin Gardner returned to his original position and put the Wolverines' offense back on track.
Gardner threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score after being told right before the game he was starting at quarterback, leading Michigan past Minnesota 35-13 on Saturday.
"It's the old riding the bike theory, kind of, to some degree," Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said. "I know it's probably a little more difficult than that, but Devin's a smart guy."
Gardner woke up the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) after they went two straight games and nine quarters without a touchdown, guiding scoring drives of 91, 90, 86 and 79 yards to squash the hope the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) had of an upset with Michigan's senior star on the sideline.
Robinson suited up, but Hoke said afterward he decided on Friday against playing him with nerve damage in his right elbow.
"I'm an optimistic person. I thought it would be a little bit better. It's ... a lot better than it was, but it's just a matter of healing all the way through," Hoke said.
Hoke said he expected Robinson to start next Saturday against Northwestern. Gardner didn't let the Wolverines down, going 12 for 18 for 234 yards despite one interception to hand the Gophers their 38th loss in the last 41 games for the Little Brown Jug trophy. Minnesota hasn't beaten Michigan at home since 1977.
Robinson acted as another coach on the sideline, helping Gardner's transition from wide receiver. He was Robinson's backup the last two years.
"He was in my ear the whole game, telling me what he saw and everything and congratulating me," Gardner said. "After I threw the interception, he kept me up. So that was great, a player like him."
From poorly timed penalties to missed tackles to ineffective play calls in short-yardage and third-down situations, the Gophers had plenty to be frustrated about after taking a 7-0 lead on Philip Nelson's touchdown pass to John Rabe. Eight of Minnesota's 10 possessions went past midfield.
Their second of three sacks of Gardner gave Michigan third-and-17 at the Minnesota 45 midway through the second quarter. But Gardner slipped one defender at the end of his scramble to the right, pivoted and ran all the way back through the pocket to his left and launched a well-worth-the-effort heave to a wide-open Drew Dileo for the score.
"I just tried to make the best play that I could, and I saw Drew waving his hands running down the field," Gardner said. "I threw it up and prayed that it got down as fast as possible."
Then when the Wolverines had the ball again, Gardner escaped a sack in his own end zone and connected with Ray Roundtree for a first down. A 2-yard run by Thomas Rawls finished off the 13-play march to make it 14-7.
Russell Bellomy filled in last week, but he threw three interceptions in the loss at Nebraska and was bothered by an unspecified injury. So Gardner, who'd been used at wide receiver to take advantage of his athleticism while Robinson was running the offense, took most of the snaps in practice and was told to be ready.
Gardner is the same type of player as Robinson, with quick feet and a knack for eluding the tackle at the last split-second, but without any depth the junior from Detroit got to show off his arm, too, to avoid the injury risk of running.
"He fashions himself as a quarterback and really has made the move (to receiver) to help us as a football team," Hoke said. "So it tells you a little bit about him and his character and what he believes in Michigan."
Michigan's pass defense, tied with Alabama for the stingiest in the nation, pressured Nelson into a 13-for-29, 142-yard performance. The Gophers played without their best wide receiver, A.J. Barker, who sprained his ankle in last week's win over Purdue.
The Gophers got the ball for the first time in the third quarter at the Michigan 42 after another short punt by Will Hagerup and had first-and-10 at the 13-yard line. But they stumbled around and failed to score, handing the momentum right back to the Wolverines.
K.J. Maye lost 6 yards running a reverse on second-and-long. Then Minnesota called a fake field goal on fourth-and-16 instead of trying a 37-yard kick by Jordan Wettstein, but the throw by holder Peter Mortell to Nelson was still 11 yards short of the first down when the quarterback was pushed out of bounds.
"We haven't beaten them here in 35 years. We were trying to make something happen," Kill said.
Kill said he was "a hero" when he called the same fake 10 years ago in a game with Southern Illinois.
"We've been working on this a long time," Nelson said. "They just had great pursuit. We just came up short."
And not only on that play.
The Wolverines went the other way and stretched their lead to two touchdowns, when Jeremy Gallon grabbed a 10-yard throw by Gardner in the corner and got a foot down before he fell out.
"Life goes on," Gallon said. "We just stepped up as a team, and individually."
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