- Todd Needle/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 14, 2013
Maybe the game could’ve been worse. Maybe Akron could’ve entered the game with a 28-game road losing streak instead of just 27. Maybe the Zips could’ve been 2-34 in the past three seasons, not 3-33. Maybe Akron could’ve been Eastern Michigan instead. Or Slippery Rock.
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Maybe the Zips could’ve scored from the one-yard line with just seconds left.
But aside from that, everything that could’ve gone wrong for the No. 11 Michigan football team did. For the Wolverines, the most troubling part of the afternoon was that many of the players and units that seized up against Akron had been the team’s most reliable this year.
And that begins with redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who had his worst game as the Michigan quarterback. Remarkably, Gardner still finished 16-for-30 passing for 248 yards and two touchdowns, plus another 131 yards and a score on the ground. But Gardner’s four turnovers were crippling. And avoidable.
After the game, Akron coach Terry Bowden said he noticed that Gardner had a penchant for carelessness.
“He’s a little reckless,” Bowden said. “He’s an unbelievable talent, he can’t be touched when he’s out there on the outside, but he does get a little loose, he can be a poor decision-maker at times and throw the ball around where he shouldn’t throw it.”
During the week, Gardner and offensive coordinator Al Borges each mentioned Borges’ research on the three major causes of interceptions. And on Saturday, two of Gardner’s interceptions fit the rule.
“No. 2 two is trying to throw the ball through flat defenders that are backing up,” Borges said. “And No. 3 is desperately avoiding the sack.”
In the second quarter, Gardner threw slightly past the flat but into back-pedaling defenders. The ball was tipped, and Akron got the interception.
At the start of the fourth quarter, just as Michigan regained the momentum with a 21-10 lead, Gardner was pressured on a screen pass. Akron linebacker Justin March blanketed Toussaint. Instead of taking the sack or throwing the ball away, Gardner tried a pass to Toussaint.
March picked it off for a touchdown.
Gardner even seemed out of sync with his favorite target, fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. The two usually seem to share a brain. But at the start of the half, after another incompletion on third down, the pair gestured to each other while running off the field. Somewhere in the play, there was a miscommunication.
Gallon thrust his hand and turned, signaling his route. Gardner did the same, miming his read. The pair discussed as they ran off the field. In all, Gardner threw four incompletions intended for Gallon.
Gardner has been Michigan’s best player and his legs carried Michigan to the close victory. But his multiplying mental mistakes are cause for concern.
“I talked to Tom Brady,” Gardner said at his post-game press conference. “He talked about being the best quarterback for the team. I was not the best quarterback for this team today. We’re going to respond.”
Red-zone offense feeling blue
Entering the game, Michigan was perfect in the red zone with Gardner as quarterback. In the 2013 season, Michigan had scored a touchdown on 10 of 11 tries in the red zone.
That too went sour against Akron. Michigan had the ball three times from Akron’s 20-yard line or better. It scored just once. That’s Michigan’s worst red-zone performance since Gardner became the quarterback.
Both failed drives came on turnovers. Gardner fumbled on an option attempt from Akron’s 10-yard line in the second quarter. He was intercepted on the next drive from Akron’s 20-yard line.
Lost: Pass rush
After the game, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that Michigan generated “no pass pressure.” And while Michigan made its last-second goal-line stand thanks to junior linebacker Brennen Beyer bursting into the backfield, Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl had plenty of time in the pocket for most of the game.
Michigan actually finished with eight quarterback hurries — more than against Notre Dame. But the Wolverines finished without a sack.
To put that in perspective, James Madison recorded four sacks against Akron last week. And James Madison is an FCS team.
Defensive-line pressure has been an issue all year for Michigan. But defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has been able to generate sacks with blitzes.