MINNEAPOLIS — Scrambling and out of alternatives on Saturday, Michigan leaned on the familiar option. Once again, Michigan needed Devin Gardner, his own concerns be damned.
Michigan desperately needed Gardner to lift it up in the second quarter Saturday, trailing 7-0 to Minnesota — yes Minnesota — as it reeled on offense. But in the bigger picture, the Wolverines needed a lift out of the panic that enveloped the team, needed a way to revive Big Ten hopes already on the brink.
The cracks first appeared against Michigan State, when Michigan failed to score a touchdown. They exploded into chaos when Robinson was injured the following week at Nebraska, taking 75 percent of the offense’s production with him. With no Robinson, the backfield was absent of any rushers with a 100-yard game this season.
Simply, Michigan had no choice. It needed Gardner. And as usual, Gardner really had no choice either.
“He fashions himself as a quarterback,” Hoke said. “He really has made the move (to receiver) to help us as a football team. That tells you a little bit about him and his character and (that) he believes in Michigan.”
Michigan scrambled and improvised like a Gardner roll-out on Saturday. For Gardner, the line between genius and grasping in the dark could be blurry.
The same could be said of Michigan.
When Michigan has needed to scramble this year, it has turned to Gardner.
Gardner was never really given a fair shake. He came in as a five-star recruit marooned behind a once-in-a-generation talent. Next year, he’ll have to compete with another hyped recruit, Shane Morris, who better fits Michigan’s pro-style system.
This year, he was asked to move to receiver, though it’s unclear whether he had a choice. The extent of his protest was to say he still considers himself a quarterback.
On Saturday, Michigan thrust him into uncharted territory: a wide receiver given one week to prepare for quarterback. There was little run game to bail him out, and even with Robinson, Michigan hadn’t scored a touchdown in two games. Gardner had taken reps at quarterback in his first two years, but he had to learn new protections and run packages in days.
“I was pretty nervous coming in to know how I would handle that,” Gardner said. “But I feel like I handled it pretty well.”
After some first-quarter hiccups, he did. Gardner was 12-for-18 with two passing touchdowns and one on the ground. He hit Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree and Drew Dileo on long vertical throws. He placed one ball perfectly in the corner of the end zone to Gallon for a touchdown. He took off instead of forcing into tight coverage.
Afterward, he smiled, and as usual, he didn’t complain.
Reeling and with no options on offense, Gardner turned to a broken scramble, a circus play. Michigan trailed 7-0 halfway through the second quarter and had just picked up its first first down.
Gardner took the snap near midfield and turned his back to the pass rush. He scrambled wildly, dangerously approaching the line of scrimmage.
“There’s no question it’s a fine line,” Hoke said. He was talking about Gardner’s scrambles: the risks, the improvisations.
“When it works out, it’s really good. When it doesn’t, it’s not so good.”
Drew Dileo appeared like an oasis in the end zone. Gardner heaved, Dileo caught and Michigan ended 145 minutes and 11 seconds of pain and embarrassment — more than two games without a touchdown.
“I brought it upon myself to run around like that,” Gardner said. “And I was pretty tired after that so I was hoping we’d score a touchdown.”
After that play, the ice broke. Gardner moved the ball at will, finishing with 234 yards. It was only Minnesota, but Michigan’s collective panic is over like a bad dream. Gardner deserves the credit for that with a 35-13 win.
Before the game, Robinson managed to throw a few passes, and Hoke said he’s optimistic he’ll play next week. That seems more likely this time around. Robinson can return and render this game an aberration, a happy anomaly — the time the Wolverines won without three quarters of their offensive output.
Now, all that’s left for Gardner is to accept his praise and celebrate the Jug, victorious, and go back to the relative anonymity of receiver. Michigan’s Cincinnatus, called upon for just one game of service at quarterback.
After the wild touchdown — one that possibly saved Michigan’s season from spiraling into ruin — Gardner threw his head back and pointed his arms skyward. Then he clasped his hands together near his chest as if to pray “thank you.”
But Gardner got it backward. Saturday, he wasn’t the prayer. Thrust into a tough situation once again, Gardner was the answer.
Zach Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @zhelfand