SportsMonday Column: Grounded until further notice

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 22, 2013

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — In order to enter or exit Rentschler Stadium, you have to drive on wide, repurposed roads that used to hold airplanes. The stadium was built on an old airport — the parking lots flank the old runways.

This is where the Michigan football team was grounded in a 24-21 win over Connecticut.

At this point, maybe Notre Dame was the fluke. Maybe we Icarus’d, got too close to the lights, where we got blinded by the spectacle of the Notre Dame game and flew over the increasingly apparent problems of this football team.

Half of Michigan’s games this season have been utter disappointments. It’s time for the expectations of this season to be tapered, at least for now and at least until this team improves on what it’s needed to improve on since Week 1.

Last week against Akron could have been an aberration, an escape against a bad team. Those games happen to even the best programs.

Saturday, though was not an aberration.

Saturday was a bad game against a bad team, the second game in a row where the Wolverines had to claw back against a team they should have beaten by three touchdowns.

Saturday was a week after fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said, “It was truly embarrassing for Michigan that we came out like that. We will not come out here like this again.”

And yet, they did. The Huskies led by two touchdowns late in the game, and the Wolverines needed a stunningly athletic interception from junior linebacker Desmond Morgan to escape against a team that lost to an FCS opponent earlier in the season.

Before the season, Michigan had three main problems to address: the inexperienced offensive line, the decision making of redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner and the play of the secondary against deep balls.

And after Saturday, what’s changed?

UConn beat every member of the Wolverines’ secondary deep except for redshirt sophomore Blake Countess and averaged almost 10 yards a completion. The offensive line couldn’t get anything resembling a push in the first half while Gardner was sacked three times. A shakeup on the interior line was needed after Notre Dame, and with a bye week coming, it will almost certainly happen now.

And most of all, Gardner looked like the same old Gardner — too athletic for his own good with a mind-numbing disregard for keeping care of the ball. Smart reads were finished by carelessness. On a fourth-down play late in the game, Gardner muscled his way for a first down but left the ball open. He recovered his own fumble, but it was behind the first-down marker.

He finished the game with two interceptions, his fourth and fifth in the last two games. Gardner leads the country in turnovers by a wide margin, despite the fact that Michigan has been favored to win by more than two touchdowns in three of the four games it’s played this season. This isn’t Ohio State, Nebraska or Penn State — these are teams that were supposed to help Gardner get his footing in his first full year as the starting quarterback.

“There’s a lot of learning going on, to be honest with you,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “There’s a lot we put on his shoulders. I think he keeps learning every time he goes out.”

Instead, Michigan goes limping into the bye week, undefeated in principle but with more problems than ever before.

After the game, Hoke said that he wouldn’t have expected Michigan to be 4-0 with as many turnovers as they’ve had. He didn’t use Gardner’s name, but the message was pretty clear anyway.

“The first interception was tipped, and any time that happens I have a hard time putting that right on the guy who threw the football,” Hoke said. “We just have to keep working and be conscious of how we are handling situations at times. Throwing the ball out of bounds is pretty good, the offense gets the ball back or gets to punt. We’ve just got to keep running home that message.”

Substitute the word “we” out with the word “Gardner.” Make more sense? It’s not Michigan that has to be conscious of how they are handling the ball — it’s Gardner.

Expectations might have been too high, but they aren’t now. They are resting comfortably on the runway, underneath Gardner’s giveaways and Lewan’s empty promises, 30,000 feet below where we were blinded by the lights.

Cook can be reached at and on Twitter @everettcook