MINNEAPOLIS — The Michigan Athletic Department delivered the sobering news minutes before kickoff: senior quarterback Denard Robinson would not start against Minnesota due to an “undisclosed injury.”
Robinson injured a nerve in his throwing elbow last week at Nebraska, and even though Michigan coach Brady Hoke repeated throughout the week that Robinson should be ready to go against the Golden Gophers, junior quarterback Devin Gardner started in his place. Gardner, who had been playing mostly at wide receiver this season, took the bulk of the snaps in practice this week to prepare for the role.
Gardner got off to a slow start, throwing an interception early in the first quarter, but he rebounded and finished 12-of-18 through the air with two passing touchdowns and one rushing, en route to a 35-13 victory over Minnesota.
“It didn’t surprise us,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “Being a receiver, being over there, that’s a whole different animal. I think that helped with some development. I think he did a nice job of managing the team. I think we had four drives over 79 yards.”
Michigan’s recent offensive struggles continued early in the contest, though, as Gardner failed to get the Wolverines on the board in the first quarter, marking the ninth straight quarter without a Michigan touchdown.
Minnesota was the first team on the board, scoring on the first play of the second quarter. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson moved right in the pocket and then looked left to find tight end John Rabe wide open on the goal line.
Michigan’s defense did a stellar job through the rest of the game, though, especially considering the short field that Minnesota’s offense had to work with. Four Golden Gopher drives started on the 50-yard line or in Wolverine territory.
“You hit on a key subject, which was the lack of our special teams being special at all,” Hoke said. “I thought the defense, we gave a little bit … too much yardage rushing the football. But I thought they had some good stops. I think they played well together.”
On the next drive after the Minnesota touchdown, though, the Wolverines ended their touchdown drought.
Pinned deep in Michigan territory following a penalty on the kickoff, Gardner led a steady drive to the Minnesota 45-yard line over 11 plays. Then on third-and-17, he extended a broken play by scrambling outside of the pocket, and he launched the deep ball to junior receiver Drew Dileo, wide open in the back left corner of the end zone.
“The fact that I improvised is kind of my fault, I believe, because I don’t think I got in the right protection during the play,” Gardner said. “Afterward I just tried to make the best play I could, and I saw Drew waving his hands running down the field, so I threw it up and just prayed that it got down as fast as possible.”
The Wolverine defense forced a quick three-and-out after the score, and Gardner went back to work with just under six minutes remaining in the first half. Starting on Michigan’s own nine-yard line, he worked down the clock on a 13-play drive that ended with sophomore running back Thomas Rawls diving into the end zone from two yards out.
Even with the slow start, Michigan went into the locker room with a 14-7 lead.
Gardner continued to roll in the second half. Midway through the third quarter and backed up deep in Michigan territory, Gardner found junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon open down the right sideline for a 47-yard strike. Five plays later, on third-and-goal, he lofted the ball to the back right corner of the end zone, where Gallon leaped over the defender and came down with a foot in bounds.
Gallon was Gardner’s top target on Saturday, finishing with four receptions for 72 yards. He also picked up 21 yards on the ground on a couple of end-around runs.
On the next Michigan drive, Gardner used another 47-yard completion to set up the score, this time to fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree. Three plays later, Gardner rolled out from the two-yard line, and kept it to himself for the score, pushing the lead to 28-10.
The Gophers responded by adding a chip-shot field goal to cut the deficit to 28-13, but Michigan answered with a 41-yard touchdown run from junior running back Fitz Toussaint to put the game on ice.
With the victory, the Little Brown Jug — the trophy awarded to the winner of this matchup after each meeting — will remain in Ann Arbor.
“It’s always important,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “It’s one of our rivalry games. That’s one of those trophy games that you want to win every year, and it’s a trophy that you want to keep at Schembechler Hall year in and year out.”