November 6, 2013

Borton's Blog: Handling the hurt

This is where it gets tough. Nebraska tickets are coming a little cheaper than normal. Championship-or-bust folks are feeling busted, with the exception of Brady Hoke and his crew, who cling to the mathematical pulse remaining.

For most, the gut-punch of a loss at Michigan State multiplied misery, subtracted joy, divided the fan base and added all sorts of question marks going forward. The Wolverines don't have time to calculate.

They have to pick themselves up and move forward. That goes double for the fourth-year performer who took perhaps the worst beating of all on Saturday.

Quarterback Devin Gardner hit the deck seven times via sacks. He got hit nearly four times that many, in the course of trying to throw over a buffalo stampede.

Come Saturday night, he felt it. Sleep brought the only respite.

Come Tuesday, he managed a smile or two. With the resilience of a 21-year-old, he waved off any hints of infirmity.

Well, mostly anyway.

"I always say, if you don't feel sore, you didn't go as hard as you can," Gardner offered.

He went as hard as he could. Gardner played a turnover-free game against the Spartans, until his final drive of the day. By that point, according to observers, it was all he could do to stand up.

"Devin Gardner got beat up so bad in that game, by the end of his last drive, he looked like he was going to collapse," Michigan sideline reporter Doug Karsch observed. "He looked like he was having problems just getting the play call in and lining up.

"Frank [Beckmann, Michigan radio play-by-play man] and [Jim] Brandstatter sent it down to me the play before the interception. On the play before the interception, I said, 'Guys, Devin's running on fumes. He looks like he's about to collapse.'

"He threw the interception on the next snap and never came back into the game. He got beat up."

Even that late, after getting overwhelmed by Michigan State's rush all game long, Gardner moved the offense, according to Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.

"He keeps growing as a quarterback," Hoke said. "That's part of it, being able to be in those pressurized situations. He made some awfully good throws. The NASCAR series at the end of the game showed a lot. He got them up, even when he got hit and went down. He kept them moving."

Gardner also kept moving when the practice week rolled around. Given the month Michigan now faces, that's even more important.

"All the leadership is tested when you have adversity," Hoke said. "He did a great job yesterday. Sore? Yeah. But every guy in the game of football across America who is playing is going to be sore. He went out and attacked the day."

The Spartans attacked him, again and again. Asked about absorbing that many sacks, Gardner asserted that's never a good development, given the yards it costs the team.

That's not what the questioner meant, of course. Pressed on the matter of brutalization, the Michigan triggerman acknowledged he felt the results of the day.

"You don't want to get sacked, ever," he acknowledged. "I hate getting tackled. Seven sacks is bad. You stay positive and continue to fight. That's the only thing you can do. I know my teammates, and they were fighting for me."

He saw hurt in the eyes of those fighting hardest for him, Gardner pointed out. Michigan's offensive linemen will be haunted by that game, and the quarterback wasn't about to pile on.

"I feel like they were pretty upset with themselves," Gardner assured. "Me being mad at them is not going to do anything. I'm very positive with them, and I believe they're fighting for me as best they can. We're just going to continue to get better, together, as a group.

"I'm not playing perfect, either. I've got a lot of things to worry about. I don't have time to get angry at anyone. We're just trying to win football games."

On a day that featured very little in the way of positives, Gardner not only took the beating without pointing fingers, he stood in a crumbling pocket as best he could and tried to deliver the football. He didn't let his footwork go south, and that's a bit of a breakthrough, one developing in recent weeks.

Earlier in the season, it wasn't that way, he reminded.

"Deep down, I already knew I could play quarterback at a high level, and take what they give me," Gardner said. "I didn't make a lot of dumb mistakes where I hurt our team too much.

"We got a lot of pressure in the UConn game, and I got out of there a little fast, got a little rattled, didn't make some of the throws that were open. I felt like that wasn't the case last week. I missed some throws, but for the most part, I felt like I did a good job of being a quarterback."

Some will immediate call "Scoreboard," and point to the six points the Wolverines put up. Gardner understands the bottom line, but also understands the grit and improvement demanded by all at this point, for the Wolverines to have any hopes of a strong-as-possible finish.

He and his linemen understand it's a game of seconds. One more, on a few occasions, could have produced bombs that changed an ugly afternoon.

"That's what helps the linemen," Gardner said. "Just one more second, and a lot of plays, we could have had big plays. It didn't happen for us, and we're going to move forward."

He took one more look back, first. They all soaked in enough pain to provide fuel for the rest of the November drive.

"The biggest thing for me is, you lose games, and you've worked so hard in the summer," Gardner said. "It hurts. You work so hard to be perfect.

"When you don't play well, when you see the hurt on guys … that's when it's really good. If it doesn't mean anything to you, it won't hurt. It hurt those guys. They're working hard to get better."

He hurts as well. But Gardner can't wallow in it, lest there be more pain to follow. The smiles might be a bit forced this week, but he's working toward ones that flow as naturally as an intact-pocket rocket downfield.

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