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Manziel text helps Gardner through longest week as starter

Todd Needle/Daily
Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner had four turnovers against Akron which killed drives and allowed the Zips to hang in the game until the final seconds. Buy this photo

BY ZACH HELFAND
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 18, 2013

One week after Devin Gardner received congratulatory texts from Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd and other members of what Gardner calls his “quarterback fraternity,” Gardner’s phone again buzzed with messages last Saturday. This time, Manziel and the others reached out to commiserate.

In one week, Gardner, the redshirt junior, had gone from his best performance as the Michigan quarterback to his worst. Against Akron, likely the weakest team the Wolverines will see all year, Gardner self-destructed. His four turnovers killed drives and allowed the Zips to hang in the game. Michigan escaped only after a last-second goal-line stand.

This week of practice has been the most trying of Gardner’s career. He said that he has never experienced a game like he had against Akron, even dating back to high school.

Most weeks, Gardner speaks with the media on Monday, but Gardner’s scheduled press conference this week fell on Wednesday. When Gardner finally took questions, he was as hard on himself as he has ever been.

During the week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan emphasized mistakes made by the team. But more than once Wednesday, Gardner took the blame.

“It was because of us it was that close, and a lot of it because of me,” Gardner said.

At another point, Gardner said it was his fault he didn’t stem the avalanche of mistakes.

“It starts with me,” Gardner said. “My mistake, and then others making mistakes and just, they kept compounding, and that’s one thing that we can’t do. It has to be me that picks us up when mistakes are being made to make sure that we turn it all around.”

Gardner was just a part of a cascade of errors against Akron. Sluggish routes by receivers and abysmal offensive line play compounded Gardner’s mistakes, but Gardner’s were the most prominent, and the most damaging.

That has become an alarming trend this season. Gardner threw two interceptions against Central Michigan in Week 1. He was masterful against Notre Dame, but an interception in Michigan’s own end zone threatened to erase Michigan’s win.

More vexing, Gardner has avoided repeating the same mistakes from game to game. That means Gardner is processing what offensive coordinator Al Borges is teaching him. But it also means each turnover comes from a different source, which makes correction more difficult.

“My biggest thing with any position, not just quarterback but any position, is how much do I have to re-coach you? How many times am I telling you the same thing time and time again, and you’re just not getting it?” Borges said. “Devin is actually pretty good at not being re-coached. He’s smart and an error he makes, he generally won’t make it again. But these scenarios, they’re different all the time.”

To Borges, the key to Gardner’s consistency is decision-making. Gardner has the skills to extend plays. He rightly has confidence in his strong arm. But sometimes that becomes a problem. In one interception against Akron, Gardner thought he could fit the ball through tight coverage to fifth-year senior receiver Jeremy Gallon. The defensive back undercut the route and got to the ball first.

Borges said that a quarterback must ask himself, “ ‘When do I cut my losses?’ You heard me say it with Denard all the time. When do you do it?”

On Gardner’s other two interceptions, he misdiagnosed the coverage on a screen that turned into a pick-six and also had a pass bounce off sophomore tight end Devin Funchess’ chest and into a defender’s hands.

If Gardner’s dynamic, sometimes risky play lends itself toward boom and bust games, he has enjoyed mostly booms. He has thrown for less than 200 yards in just two of eight games. In 2012, Gardner never threw more interceptions than touchdowns in a game. He has never completed less than half of his passes.

Even against Akron, Gardner still passed for 248 yards and two touchdowns and led Michigan on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. That just further underscores Gardner’s place as Michigan’s most important player. With Denard Robinson out, Michigan was supposed to be a more balanced team. But so far, the offense relies on the quarterback nearly as much as it did under Robinson: Gardner accounted for 83 percent of the Wolverines’ offense Saturday.

Gardner understands. He answered each question at his Wednesday press conference, but seemed eager to put the week behind him. Near the end of the 11-minute press conference, Gardner let out a deep breath, half sigh and half chuckle.

“This week has been so long and we’re only halfway through it,” he said, then added: “And then we’ve got an 8 o’clock game, so it’s gonna make it even longer.”