CHAMPAIGN — On a whiteboard in an Illinois team meeting room, some leftover remnants of the team’s preparation for the Michigan football team remained. There were two groups of circles, lined up in the I-formation. One group was labeled “1s,” the other “2s.” In blue dry erase marker, the Fighting Illini had written “16” next to the quarterback spot in the“1s” and “7” under the “2s.”
Last week, the charts may have had the most accurate description of “7,” sophomore Devin Gardner’s role in the offense since offensive coordinator Al Borges played Gardner in his “Deuce” two-quarterback formation in the Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
Illinois may now want to write “7” somewhere between the two numbers.
Last week against Iowa, Gardner struggled filling in for injured junior quarterback Denard Robinson. He hesitated to throw, then hesitated to run. When he did take off, he ran into defenders. Gardner threw a first down pass too high and chucked an underhanded ball to the sideline as he was getting sacked, which led to an intentional grounding call.
Robinson eventually came back into the game to lead a last-minute drive.
Saturday, Gardner didn’t see the field early. The “Deuce” formation, which was featured several times since the game against the Golden Gophers, had Gardner at quarterback and Robinson as a back or split out wide. With both playing at the same time and Gardner taking the snap, it created a sense of Robinson as quarterback 1A and Gardner as 1B. Borges didn’t call the formation the entire game against the Fighting Illini.
But when Robinson bruised his wrist and left the game, Gardner didn’t disappoint in backup duty this time.
Coming in with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter, he instantly led a drive that resulted in a field goal. The highlight came when Gardner rolled out to his right and hit fifth-year senior wide receiver Junior Hemingway in the hands coming across the field.
“My coaches always say if one person goes down, you got to step up and do the same as he was doing,” said senior wide receiver Martavious Odoms. “That’s what he did.”
The numbers weren’t impressive: 2-for-5 passing for 47 yards and a touchdown, two rushes for nine yards. But it only took one play for Gardner to show everyone his potential.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said after the game that Robinson could have returned late. But in a 10-point game early in the fourth quarter, Hoke sent Gardner trotting back onto the field. On 3rd-and-15, Gardner dropped back, feeling pressure from the edge. He stepped up in the pocket.
“We forced the quarterback to step up, just like it was designed,” said Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “Our fourth rusher should have been right there.”
Instead the rusher was playing off the line of scrimmage. As he challenged Gardner, the quarterback didn’t hesitate this time. He stepped to throw and hit Odoms, who had come open between the safeties, in the chest. Odoms trotted into the end zone untouched.
“That’s a great play,” Hoke said. “I think he played as well as I’ve seen him play.”
Robinson will be the starting quarterback next week. There is no guarantee that the “Deuce” formation will reappear. But on Saturday, Gardner proved to be a weapon, making believers out of the Fighting Illini.
“He’s a stronger guy, not quite as elusive but he did get away from us, unbelievably so,” Koenning said. “It just looked like he ran right through arm tackles.”