Michigan's quarterback position in 2013 featured a one-man show, involving no lack of drama, plot twists and cliffhangers. The one man rode the rollercoaster, right along with the offense he led.
Devin Gardner put up some incredible numbers at times. He threw for 503 yards and ran for 81 against Indiana, producing five touchdowns and a Michigan-record 751 yards of offense. He passed for 451 more against Ohio State, taking the Wolverines within one successful play of bringing down the No. 3 Buckeyes.
He led the Wolverines past Notre Dame, putting up 41 points while passing (294 yards) and running (82) his way by the flailing Irish. After an interception-saturated non-conference season, he threw 14 touchdown passes to only three pickoffs in conference play.
Obviously, that wasn't the whole story. Despite his mobility, Gardner absorbed 35 sacks this season. He and Michigan's offense struggled through a November in which the Wolverines - aside from the Ohio State game - struggled mightily not only to score, but even to move the chains.
Michigan's third-down conversion percentage plummeted from around 49 percent to its present 39, while the Wolverines tumbled out of Big Ten title contention. Gardner wound up with 11 interceptions and fumbles lost at key junctures in games such as at Penn State and Iowa.
He enters the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - if, in fact, he actually DOES enter it - having completed 208 of 345 throws (60.3 percent) for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 483 yards rushing and 11 more TDs on 165 attempts. He's only the sixth Big Ten quarterback in history to throw for more than 500 yards and more than 400 yards in games during the same season.
Only one Michigan quarterback in history threw for more yardage in a single season. John Navarre passed for 3,331 yards in 2003, a mark Gardner could surpass if he heals from his reported turf toe injury and experienced an Ohio State-like day in the bowl game.
U-M offensive coordinator Al Borges gives Gardner credit for making substantial strides this season. At the same time, Borges sees part of his quarterback's inconsistency centering on trying to do it all at times.
"The problem with any quarterback is, when you're not doing well, you feel obligated to do more," Borges said. "Maybe create something that you really probably shouldn't have done. That's compounded with an athletic quarterback
"He threw the bulk of his interceptions in the first half of the season. I don't know how many he threw in the last five games, but it wasn't very many.
"We had four games [in November] where we just played poorly. I mean poorly. I think he was feeling obligated to make something happen at times."
Plenty played into that situation, including Michigan's struggles with the offensive line and the running game. The Wolverines were No. 125 in the nation, dead last, in allowing tackles-for-loss, surrendering an average nine per game for an average of 108.0 yards in reverse.
That doesn't help, as the downs wear on.
"A lot of it was dealing with a lot of second-and-longs, which resulted in a lot of third-and-longs, which resulted in a lot of sacks, and punts," Borges said. "We've got to find ways to stay out of those situations, and that's what we did in the Ohio game."
"I always know how the game went when I look at my call sheet and I see how many third-and-longs I called. When I've used every one of them, we usually lose. If I've used about half of them, we're usually in pretty good shape."
Borges insisted both the great performances and the struggles on offense were team efforts.
"It's not one guy," he said. "When you play as bad as we did for four games, it's not one player. There are too many other things that happened, that you can't pin on the quarterback, or pin on the linemen, or pin on the wide receivers."
Given the November struggles turned into a sterling effort against the Buckeyes, it might be reasonable to think Gardner could be ready to step up and perform well in the bowl and beyond. But his injury could keep him out of the bowl, and he hasn't ruled out testing the NFL waters thereafter.
Behind Gardner, there are question marks. True freshman Shane Morris has a strong arm and a fall of learning the ropes under his belt. But Michigan's struggles to gain separation even on the weaker opponents on the schedule ensured that he didn't groom much on the field.
He saw limited action in four games, going 5-for-9 throwing for 65 yards and an interception. As Borges recently observed, it's a whole new ballgame for a rookie QB.
"Shane understands the offense a lot better," Borges said. "With more time in bowl practices to prepare, that helps.
"When you first get here, it's overwhelming for a freshman quarterback, particularly if he wasn't in spring football. All that stuff is hitting him at one time, and it's tough. But now he's had 12 games, bowl practices, and he's catching up.
"It's probably more mental but still physical because the mental affects the physical. If you don't understand read progressions, footwork, timing, and all that, you get paralysis through analysis. So there is carryover."
As far as improvements, Morris has gotten better with his touch, Borges pointed out.
"He's learned how to pace the ball better," Borges said. "The idea with the guys that have strong arms is you have to make it clear to them is it's a finesse art game - it's not a see-how-hard-and-far-I-can-throw-the-ball game, otherwise you should just go throw the javelin.
"Passing is a finesse art and it's an ability to put the ball from Point A to Point B in a manner that the guy who is catching it has a chance to run with it.
"When the ball has to be spun tight, with high RPMs between defenders, he can do that, but he's really getting a feel for when he needs to pace it and take a few RPMs off of it so the guy can see it and catch it. He's done a nice job of staying on top of things."
Redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy, meanwhile, is coming off a particularly tough stretch. He hasn't played since subbing for Gardner at Nebraska last season, then tore an anterior cruciate ligament in a knee last spring, just recently getting cleared to play.
So while he carries more experience than Morris, Bellomy is just getting back up to speed.
"He's jumped in with both feet," Borges said. "He hadn't really done much other than a few drills, but once we hit bowl practices, we poured him in with team periods. A guy with a knee, if you don't jump right back on the horse, you can be tentative. So he's done a good job. He's still a little tentative throwing the ball but hasn't looked too bad."
Gardner's status - both for the bowl and the 2014 season - is obviously the key here. If he's able to play on Dec. 28 and does anything like what he did against the Buckeyes, Michigan becomes the favorite. If not, big advantage Kansas State.
If Gardner isn't around next fall, it's a wide-open battle between Morris, Bellomy and incoming Wilton Speight. It's also a lot offseason hand-wringing by those knowing Michigan's offense - which absorbed plenty of learning through hard knocks this year - could take a step back, at least initially, behind center.
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