LINCOLN— The irony of Russell Bellomy’s final interception, the one he heaved into double coverage in the end zone, is that the receiver he was targeting could’ve been the quarterback. Probably should’ve.
But Devin Gardner at receiver was a get-rich-quick scheme, a bad gamble, and like any bad gamble it started with three things: a man, a choice and a misguided optimism. Michigan coach Brady Hoke bought into the scheme. He lost. He didn’t lose his shirt or his house but he lost the game, 23-9, to Nebraska on Saturday. And he just might have gambled Michigan out of a shot at the Big Ten title, too.
Here’s how the scheme worked:
In the beginning, there were just good intentions. And some imagination, too, you need that for the scheme to win you over. Imagine the best two athletes — senior quarterback Denard Robinson and junior quarterback Devin Gardner — on the field at the same time. Imagine Robinson’s legs and his arm, Gardner’s size and his leaping ability at receiver. Imagine throwing past overmatched Big Ten defenses all the way to Indianapolis.
That’s what Hoke must have thought. He must have. And at the time, it made too much sense. The third-string quarterback, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy, was improving. Was he improving enough? The wide receivers were pedestrian. Gardner could bring life. No need to develop young wide receivers, you could get rich quick.
Opportunity cost. Risk. Choice.
The choice, yes, here’s where it gets interesting. The imagination cedes to the rational. The opportunity cost. If Robinson goes down, who goes in? Do I still play Gardner? Will he be ready? And the kicker: is this all worth it?
Risk. No doubt it’s a risk. A gamble, of course. You know it’s been a gamble all along. Hoke had a choice between the known — uninspiring as it may be — and the exciting unknown. Hoke gambled on the faulty scheme. He gambled on Robinson’s durability and Bellomy’s ability. Hoke chose to roll the dice.
For a while, it worked. It lurched forward, as Gardner became a serviceable but raw talent at receiver and Robinson fought through a persistent right-arm injury and Bellomy struggled in relief. It worked until the bubble burst, until Robinson injured his arm again on Saturday, this time badly enough to knock him out for the entire second half. That’s what happens with these schemes. The foundation gets yanked away and the tower falls. These weren’t toxic bonds, they were toxic roster moves, and Hoke was praying for a bull market. He was praying for snake eyes.
Problem is, this isn’t Las Vegas, this is the Big Ten. In the real world, you hedge. In the real world, you have a plan B. You plan for what happens if Denard isn’t durable enough. If Bellomy isn’t good enough. Who do you turn to then? Has Gardner taken enough reps? Is Jack Kennedy ready?
Michigan had no quarterback, no plan, no chance against a Nebraska defense smelling blood in the water. Here’s what Hoke’s plan looked like:
Gardner wasn’t an option to go in at quarterback, Hoke said, “because he hasn’t practiced there a whole lot.”
Still, Gardner would’ve been the third option, after Bellomy, Hoke said. But he also said no matter how bad Bellomy played, there was no threshold for sending in Gardner.
“Russell probably would’ve had to get hurt (for Gardner to go in),” Hoke said. So Gardner wasn’t an option, until he was. He could’ve gone in after all, but wouldn’t.
And Bellomy tested that threshold, darn it. He finished 3-for-16. He threw as many interceptions (three) to Nebraska as he threw completions. His longest plays of the day were penalties. But don’t blame the redshirt freshman. He entered in the middle of the game in a hostile stadium, with no run game. And, Russell? Score us some touchdowns, please, because we’re trailing. Never mind that we haven’t scored a touchdown in 90 minutes of game time.
No, don’t blame Bellomy. He played just like the plan said.
It was hardly a plan. Hoke’s own answers said that. So that’s what the hollow plan looked like. Here’s what it felt like:
It felt like Robinson, trying to throw on the sideline at the end of the third quarter, and throwing the ball down in pain. It felt like Robinson caressing his injured right hand with his left as the game spun further out of Michigan’s control in the fourth quarter.
It felt like Jack Kennedy, the third- (or is it fourth-) string quarterback loosening up on the sideline.
It felt like a mediocre Nebraska defense sending men at the quarterback at will, unafraid of Bellomy’s arm.
And yes, it felt like a throw into double coverage to a receiver who should’ve been doing the throwing in the first place.
Devin Gardner has said all season he still considers himself a quarterback, and before that play, Michigan was seconds away from going 120 minutes without a touchdown. That’s the equivalent of two full games. Yet there was Gardner, with Bellomy reeling and Robinson hurt, and he was trying to catch passes instead of throwing them. Gardner, the top quarterback prospect in his recruiting class. Gardner, the best chance at reaching the elusive end zone again. Gardner, at wide receiver. Now, it’s easy to ask: How backward is that?
So Michigan caught a few bad breaks. Robinson went down, though it should be noted, he had shown signs of injury for weeks. Bellomy played below anyone’s reasonable expectations. But when there’s no hedge, no backup, all that’s left after you bust is the long fall.
And, if Robinson doesn’t recover, a long, cold Big Ten season too.
Zach Helfand also bought into the Gardner-to-receiver scheme. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zhelfand