November 3, 2012

Gardner: the man for the moment

Calling on Devin Gardner instead of Denard Robinson to protect the Little Brown Jug, on paper, looks like an equipment department trainee packing it up, rather than four-decade Jug juggler Jon Falk.

After all, the junior signal caller was making his first career start in Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. The senior for whom he subbed has 10,000 yards plus on his resume.

But Robinson couldn't go, the nerve issues in his right arm making that clear through Michigan's week of practice. The question then became, did Gardner - Michigan's only remaining healthy scholarship quarterback option - have the nerve, and the skill, to get the job done?

He answered with a resounding with a resounding yes, in Michigan's 35-13 win over the Gophers.

After a slow start - seven points through the game's opening 29:15 - Gardner and the Wolverines cranked it up like tanks through Twinkies.

Gardner fired his way to an efficient, at times spectacular, 12-for-18 passing performance, racking up 234 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

Sure, it was against a bottom-half Big Ten defense, in front of a wholly unintimidating, late-arriving collection of smiling Scandinavians. No, it wasn't under the bright lights against a Big Ten bully.

But for a team that hadn't crossed the goal line in two weeks, with its leader kept immobilized like the Little Brown Jug itself, Gardner proved nothing short of championship caliber.

He enjoyed help, and plenty of it. Michigan's defense more than neutralized Minnesota freshman gunslinger Philip Nelson, who registered a 13-for-29 throwing effort for 142 yards. Gardner's receivers fought like wounded Wolverines, catching almost everything in sight.

But the kid in the crosshairs needed to perform. He did, adding a piece to a potential championship puzzle.

"Someone just had to step up and fill that position, and he did a tremendous job," insisted junior wideout Jeremy Gallon, who appeared to double his 5-8 stature in snagging one TD grab. "Life goes on."

It went on in winning fashion, because the next man up didn't fall down. Meanwhile, the man on the shelf didn't sit idly by.

Robinson became Gardner's biggest fan - an encourager through the slow start, including an ugly interception, and a second set of eyes throughout.

"He's always been confident in me," Gardner said. "He talked to me all week. He's a great teammate. He felt like he was down, and someone was going to have to step up. I just thank him for that.

"He was in my ear the whole game, telling me what he saw, and congratulating me. After I threw the interception, he made sure he kept me up. That was great from a player like him, who has to sit down because he's injured, as a senior."

Gardner carried an extra burden in his first start. He needed to stay healthy, and not over-use his own nimble feet, given Michigan's precarious quarterback situation.

"I felt like [the offense] was kind of safe, just because we didn't have as much depth at quarterback today," Gardner said. "You couldn't run the quarterback. I'm comfortable with doing that, but there was no way we could have done that. It just wouldn't have been smart. Our coaches are very smart, and they knew just what to do."

Some insisted those same coaches didn't know what to do a week earlier, when the Wolverines were floundering at Nebraska. They stayed with struggling sophomore Russell Bellomy, instead of going to the lanky right-hander out of the bullpen.

Gardner wasn't ready for that one, not only because he prepped for Nebraska at wide receiver, but from a physical standpoint as well. His shoulder injury at Notre Dame never drew major ink, but required significant healing.

So did Michigan, after the lost night in Lincoln. The Wolverines found it, in a wide receiver who still considers himself a quarterback.

"I play quarterback, so I felt good," Gardner said with a smile.

He did this week, and could next week, depending upon Robinson's unnerving right arm. Some will overreact and say he should anyway, in a Wally Pipp fantasy scenario bordering on idiocy.

But Gardner did submit a serious piece of videotape for his expected bid to stand behind center 10 months from now. He showed he's capable of directing the Wolverines downfield in a way that should give him a leg up in spring practice.

That's then. This is now.

Gardner's greatest achievement of the afternoon went far beyond is own hopes and dreams. He helped keep Pasadena as a viable holiday alternative for more than 100 Wolverines, along with everyone ensconced inside Schembechler Hall.

At the end of the day, the effort kept Michigan tied for first in the Legends Division, one division rival choke job away from sitting all alone at the top.

But the opportunity remains, thanks to a team living by one of its own dictums.

This was simply next man up -- way up.

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