Posturing with Gardner, smoke screens at running back ineffective

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas — They were laughing, and it was only the first quarter. There were five minutes left in the quarter when Alabama scored its second touchdown, and one Alabama fan glanced up at the scoreboard and broke into a joyful laughter, and he did it on a video board 159 feet long.

The camera jumped to a set of pretty girls in a box dressed up in more formal attire. They smiled wide, until they too started laughing.

It was over already, and they knew it, knew it because Michigan’s game plan relied more on smoke than substance. Without a feature running back, Michigan turned to last-minute deception. The offensive plan called for senior quarterback Denard Robinson to win the game with his arm, but his go-to target on Saturday was his roommate, Devin Gardner, a converted quarterback whose inexperience showed.

The smoke didn’t hold up, not against mighty Alabama. Michigan’s attempt was so futile, and the drubbing so efficient, that the Alabama fans smiled so hard that they laughed, and the first quarter wasn’t even over.

“On both sides of the ball,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke after the game. “It was bad on both sides of the ball.”

After it was over, Gardner, the one who was supposed to be a difference maker, received a pat from a Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and then walked off, his face blank. He jogged into the tunnel alone, finally free from the secondary that blanketed him almost all night.

Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges played coy with Gardner’s status in the spring, declining to say outright whether or not Gardner would play at receiver. During fall camp, they conceded he’d play some but didn’t detail how much.

In fact, the moves actually did cause confusion. Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said the Tide had no way of preparing for Gardner.

“You don’t (prepare for a player like Gardner)” Johnson said. “We kind of just went over all the possibilities, and that’s what we did and just went from there.”

That confusion just never translated to the field. Milliner harassed Gardner all game. He knocked an early pass away on a slant, ran with him step for step on a fade, and countered an impressive leaping attempt with perfect defensive positioning.

“My teammates were just like, ‘Why are they picking on you?’ ” Milliner said.

Robinson went at Milliner starting from Michigan’s first snap. On that play, Gardner ran a slant, and Robinson delivered a strike, and Gardner dropped the ball.

Robinson tried Gardner again on the next drive, this time a third-down fade. Gardner was open, and Robinson floated it toward the sideline. Gardner, though, drifted toward the middle of the field, and couldn’t adjust to the properly-placed pass.

Two more times, Gardner’s inexperience prevented a reception. During one route, Gardner stopped his route, and Robinson’s pass sailed long as a result. In the third quarter, Gardner turned over the wrong shoulder, and when he adjusted, he ran into an Alabama defensive back. Incomplete.

“I’m glad they did what they did,” Milliner said. “I was just prepared and ready to make plays.”

Milliner and Gardner first met years ago during an Under Armour high school game, back when Milliner was a young cornerback trying to improve his craft and his stock and Gardner was a burgeoning quarterback. On Saturday, as Gardner tried to beat Milliner with his legs instead of his arm, Milliner said he talked trash with his good friend. After the game, his superiority established, Milliner was optimistic about Gardner’s future.

“He looked like a normal receiver to me,” said Milliner. “He had great routes, he was physical at the line of scrimmage when they had to block.”

Gardner flashed that potential, but only once. His jab step in the third quarter froze the cornerback, who fell to the turf, and sprung Gardner to a 44-yard touchdown reception. Even then, though, Gardner had to adjust after turning awkwardly over the wrong shoulder, and with the touchdown, Alabama still led, 34-14.

Gardner was one of Robinson’s favorite targets, with seven balls thrown his way. His touchdown reception was his only catch.

“I think Devin’s a pretty special athlete,” Hoke said. “To get another athlete on the field helps us.”

Hoke and Michigan counted on that extra dose of athleticism, especially in the absence of suspended running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. With Toussaint, the redshirt junior, left in Ann Arbor, Michigan turned to senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls.

No one outside of the Michigan team knew of Toussaint’s suspension until Friday afternoon, right before Michigan boarded the team plane to Dallas. Hoke had waited until the day before the game to announce.

No matter who carried the ball, though, no one found any daylight. Smith gained 37 yards on 13 carries, Rawls managed just 11 yards on 6 touches, and even Robinson was limited to just 37 yards.

Like the Gardner move, the late announcement of Toussaint’s suspension affected the Tide’s preparations. Alabama’s players prepare breakdowns of the opposition each week. On Thursday, Johnson, the linebacker, stood in front of the team and addressed the tendencies of Michigan’s running backs. First on his list? Toussaint.

“It kind of messed my tendencies up,” Johnson said. “It was a big deal for this game, because the way we game plan was on certain running backs. Because (Smith), he’s a more shifty back than (Toussaint) is, so it’s kind of difficult with him in it because we didn’t really prepare for him all week.”

Didn’t matter. Alabama’s substance stomped Michigan’s flash, and by the second half, the Alabama side of the stadium had already begun celebrating the first step on the way to another national championship run.

They beamed. They high-fived and drank and waved pom poms. One woman rubbed her eyes with her fists and mocked a crying face on the big screen.

Inside the Alabama interview room with glass windows facing the field, Milliner talked about what it was like to be challenged by Michigan with a player who had never played a snap at receiver. On the glass, Alabama fans yelled “Roll Tide” and chanted “S-E-C” and smiled, as the celebration three quarters in the making continued.

— An earlier version of this article published on Saturday was updated on Monday to add context for print.