Saturday's win over Minnesota represented one small step toward a potential Big Ten championship, but one giant leap for a junior quarterback with designs on the job in 2013.
Devin Gardner, after getting his feet under him, looked like everything the high school hype screamed he could be in burying the Golden Gophers in TCF Bank Stadium. He threw extremely well (12-for-18, 234 yards, two TDs), he scrambled effectively, and he demonstrated a poise that Michigan desperately needed.
Which, of course, begs the question - why wasn't he the backup guy in the first place?
That one will be debated through the end of the season, and probably long after, but there isn't one answer, and certainly not a simple set of them - at least as simple as it seems, given the last fortnight of results.
Sophomore Russell Bellomy - in whom Michigan's coaches felt confident enough to make him the backup in the fall - could not, with his teammates, get the job done in a sudden-change situation under the lights in Lincoln. Gardner did, at high noon in Minneapolis.
Whether Gardner should have emerged out of spring ball as Michigan's No. 2 at QB is obvious to some. Then again, they weren't trying to shore up the wideout position, make sure Gardner was involved on the field after two restless years of mostly clipboard holding, and watching him mature as a Wolverine.
Gardner himself summed it up best, in describing how he got ready to step in for the injured Denard Robinson in Minneapolis.
"This last week is probably the best I've prepared for anything, he assured. "There was so much I had to know. There was a lot weighing on the game - the sixth win, the seniors being able to have a guaranteed postseason. I felt like it was a lot I had to do, so I had to prepare really well. I feel like that's how I should prepare every week."
Michigan's coaches agree. That's not always what they've witnessed out of him, and to some degree that's understandable.
Gardner has been locked behind an explosive performer that has had his name in the Heisman Trophy talk, who was on his way to racking up more yards than anyone to ever wear a winged helmet, etc. For someone hoping to move into the position, the journey represents a significant mountain to climb.
"I didn't think I had a chance to start, just because he had experience," Gardner said. "He had played in a live setting, in games in The Big House. No matter what others say, it's different performing in practice than performing in front of 113,000. It's totally different.
"People don't understand that. They don't understand that just because you perform in practice
even I didn't understand that. It's a lot different."
Sometimes, when you don't think you have a chance, you can allow yourself to accept that as fact. It then impacts how a State Street quarterback goes about getting ready to perform as a Michigan Stadium quarterback.
Head coach Brady Hoke has, in the past, pointedly noted there is an incredible amount of effort that goes into being the starting quarterback at Michigan. He's also indicated that he has seen Gardner begin understanding how serious that particular business is, for the individual and the team.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges dropped his own heavy hints about Gardner's increasing maturity in the spring.
"I've been happy with Devin," Borges noted last April. "His work ethic has improved incredibly. He's always been serious about football, but he's understanding better the business of football. The quarterback has to almost epitomize that."
Borges also said: "Devin is a smart kid and incredibly athletic, with a big, strong throwing arm. He can be as good as he wants to be."
It's been evident, in recent days, he wants to be really good as a Michigan quarterback, more so than at any time he's been in Ann Arbor. He saw an opportunity on Saturday, and latched on. He's matured to the point that this turned out to be anything but a missed assignment.
Whether he plays quarterback again Saturday against Northwestern remains to be seen, and depends largely on Robinson's healing process. But in one afternoon (and really, one week of preparation), Gardner's outlook for 2013 changed dramatically.
Hoke cares about nothing but the stretch drive of 2012 right now, of course. But he believes Gardner has gained much from his stint playing wide receiver.
"Playing receiver has helped him immensely, because of how receivers practice," Hoke said. "They're running 40 yards every snap. They're running back the way Heck [receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski] coaches. They are hitting the sled. There's a maturity we all go through, a mentality you develop, and so I think that's helped him.
"Take routes and coverage reads and all that, couple that with it, I think it's helped him."
Gardner has no doubt about which end of the throws he wants to be on next year. Part of the deal on his move to wide receiver, he noted, involved it not being irrevocable. He'll be battling at QB next spring, regardless of what the next few weeks produce.
"Definitely," he assured. "We all spoke about it - me, Coach Hoke and Coach Borges. That's a goal of mine, and they catered to that. I was just helping the team this year, and I'm still helping the team this year - at quarterback right now, or if they need me at receiver."
Next spring, Robinson's huge shadow disappears. A matured, toughened Gardner will see nothing but other hopefuls seeking one of he most high-profile jobs in college sports.
He intends to prepare like he never has before.
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