- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 31, 2013
Every time Devin Gardner improvises, Brady Hoke says, the Michigan coach crosses his fingers. On Saturday, Gardner improvised often.
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Of all the attributes possessed by the redshirt junior quarterback — size, speed, arm strength —his best might be his creativity. Gardner thrives amid confusion. His confidence and athleticism extend plays and converts third and fourth downs. This is a skill that infuriates defenses and wins games. Think Johnny Manziel’s broken play artistry (or for more familiar, more painful examples for Michigan fans, think Vince Young in the 2005 Rose Bowl or Troy Smith for three years).
When left un-spied in Saturday's 59-9 victory, Gardner gashed Central Michigan with his legs. He rushed seven times for 52 yards. Only one was designed. Three converted a third or fourth down. Two scored touchdowns.
But Hoke crosses his fingers for a reason.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Hoke said.
For Michigan coaches, Gardner can make any play call look smart. In coming games, defenses will use a defender as a spy, or Gardner will run wild. But the coaching staff also worries that he’ll expose himself to hits or force the issue.
For players, blocking or running routes becomes an adventure. Every time Gardner improvises, fifth year senior offensive tackle Michael Schofield says, he doesn’t even try to guess where Gardner’s headed. First Schofield feels the defender move one direction, so he adjusts. Then the defender runs the other direction. Then switches again. Gardner, he said, is “shifty, shifty.”
“So you have no really clue where he is, you just try to stay in front of your guy as much as you can,” Schofield said.
On Michigan’s first offensive touchdown, Gardner took the shotgun snap and waited. He waited and pumped. He pumped and waited. He waited and dropped back and stepped up and then, finally, tucked and breezed, with long-legged grace, into the end zone. In all, he danced in the pocket for six seconds and covered the 22 yards to the end zone in another four.
Later, facing a fourth and one in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Al Borges called a designed quarterback run. Gardner converted easily, directing his blockers before ducking out of bounds past a defender like a matador.
When Denard Robinson ran, Schofield said, he put his head down and beat defenses with pure speed. Robinson rarely scrambled effectively. Gardner, Schofield said, keeps his head up. He changes direction often. When Gardner runs, his long strides make running look easy, calm.
That’s by design. When he improvises, Gardner says, he keeps a straight face. His teammates see that, he said, and they’re calm too.
“I’m not really chaotic, my heads not spinning or anything,” he said. “It’s probably refreshing for them. And then when they get open, I get an opportunity to hit them. And if they don’t I’ll just run.”
Gardner is so confident that coaches must remind him that it is okay to throw the ball away. Gardner switched fields and pirouetted without looking Saturday. That didn’t hurt him against Central Michigan. Against a better defense, forcing the issue is more dangerous.
Gardner’s mistakes Saturday came in the pocket. Both were balls he shouldn’t have forced but did. His second pass attempt on Michigan’s second offensive play was an interception deep in Michigan’s own territory. He stared down senior receiver Drew Dileo on an out route. The cornerback read it from the start.
“A decent pass,” Gardner said, “But it was a bad read.”
He forced the issue again in the second quarter when both receivers ran streaks. Both were covered. He tried to find fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon anyway. He was hit when he threw, and Central Michigan had another easy interception.
Gardner finished 10-of-15 with the two interceptions. He scored a touchdown through the air and two on the ground.
“He had a good game,” Hoke said. “I wouldn’t say elite or excellent or anything. But I thought he had a good game.”
Against Notre Dame and beyond, when more than good is needed, Gardner’s balance between creative and conservative will be crucial. Gardner will scramble. That will make plays and turnovers. Fingers will be crossed.