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November 3, 2012

Gardner with an on-time delivery

Devin Gardner faced one week to transform himself back into a quarterback mindset. When the time came to throw the passes, he delivered.

The junior slid behind center for ailing senior Denard Robinson and enjoyed the best performance of his career in a 35-13 push past Minnesota. He went 12-for-18 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, making certain the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1) stayed in the thick of the Big Ten Legends Division race.

Gardner enjoyed plenty of help, from a defense that allowed just 13 points, to receivers making some of the most spectacular catches of the year. But the pressure clearly centered on the young man behind center, and he ranged from the steady to the sensational.

"I think he did a nice job of managing the team," U-M head coach Brady Hoke said. "I think we had four drives over 79 yards, possessed the ball a little bit. I thought he did a great job."

Those touchdown drives - of 91, 90, 86 and 79 yards - felt like a page out of 1990s Michigan football, albeit without the dominant run game. Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint managed 70 yards on 13 tries, but the Wolverines needed a major dose of timely throws and savvy receiving efforts to pack away a win, along with the Little Brown Jug.

For a while, the Wolverines were going nowhere.

After a scoreless first quarter played mostly on Michigan's end of the field, the Gophers broke through first. Following a shanked, 22-yard punt, Minnesota took over on the Michigan 43.

Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson (13-for-29, 142 yards, one TD) picked his way downfield, getting down to the Michigan 10 in five plays. From there, he rolled right, drawing the entire U-M defense with him. He tossed back left to a wide-open fullback John Rabe for a breakthrough touchdown pass.

Seconds into the second quarter, the Gophers led 7-0, against a Michigan team that carved out a total of nine first-quarter yards. The Wolverines desperately needed to rally and respond behind Gardner, and he came up with a game-changer of a play.

Digging out from their on 9 after a kickoff penalty, the Wolverines got into Minnesota territory on some hard running by sophomore tailback Thomas Rawls (16 carries, 43 yards, one touchdown). An eight-yard sack put the Wolverines into a third-and-17 situation, but Gardner scrambled like an impala chased by lions to make something special happen.

He rolled right, spun back to his left, bought time and unleashed a 45-yard bomb to wide-open junior receiver Drew Dileo (four catches, 69 yards, one TD), who had snuck away from coverage during the extended play.

"I saw Drew waving his hands running down the field," Gardner said. "I just threw it up and prayed that it got down as fast as possible."

"He did a tremendous job of escaping the pressure," Dileo said. "Once he rolled out right, I just ran a flat route, and they all pursued that way. I got behind everybody deep, and he threw a good ball."

At 7-7 with 7:05 remaining in the half, the Wolverines were breathing a sigh of relief, and ready to ramp it up on defense. They did, but they needed more than a bombs-away offense to get some separation on the road.

In the closing moments of the half, Gardner directed much, much more. Backed to their own 10 on a punt-return penalty, the Wolverines dialed up a 13-play, 90-yard drive featuring a fully up-to-speed mix of running and passing.

Perhaps submitting his audition tape for the starting QB job in 2013, Gardner connected on consecutive intermediate throws, 17 yards to fifth-year senior wideout Roy Roundtree (two catches, 64 yards) and 22 yards to redshirt sophomore wideout Jerald Robinson. On a crucial third-and-6 play, Gardner danced right, nimbly avoided tacklers and tiptoed down the sideline for 19 yards.

When a Minnesota defender grabbed freshman tight end Devin Funchess on a third-and-goal fade, the interference penalty set the Wolverines up for Rawls' two-yard bull rush into the end zone with 45 seconds remaining in the half.

Gardner looked like he'd arrived, and the Wolverines themselves were back.

"All week, I got a lot of reps," Gardner admitted. "I just prepared like I was going to be the starter. They said prepare, because you never know what is going to happen."

What happened thereafter put kept the Jug securely back in its case.

Minnesota opened the second half in great shape after another shanked punt. They maneuvered from their own 42 into scoring position at the U-M 13, but Michigan's defense stiffened, and an ill-advised fake field goal went nowhere, giving the Wolverines possession on their own 14.

From there, Gardner directed another impressive drive, with a couple gallons of help. He gunned a 47-yard bomb to junior wideout Jeremy Gallon (four catches, 72 yards, one TD) on a nifty double-move past the Minnesota defense. Then on third-and-goal from the 10, Gardner hung one high in the right corner of the end zone.

Gallon soared like he'd pulled on his Jet Man shoes, hung in the air, and snatched down the ball with a Gophers defender trying to beat it away upon Gallon's reentry.

"The way the corner was playing me, Devin put the ball in a place where the corner couldn't make a play on the ball," Gallon said. "I just went up and grabbed the ball."

The eight-play, 86-yard drive put the Wolverines firmly in control at 21-7 with 5:05 left in the third quarter. Minnesota answered with a 26-yard Jordan Wettstein field goal just 1:10 into the fourth, pulling the Gophers within 11, 21-10.

But Gardner kept muscling up for the long ball, and his receivers cooperated with flypapers hands. Gardner unleashed a 47-yard bomb down the middle that looked like it might get picked off by Minnesota Troy Stoudermire, but Roundtree ripped it away and kept battling for it all the way to the turf.

Three plays later, Gardner himself rolled right, and fought his way into the end zone, completing an eight-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. That settled the matter, the Wolverines fashioning a 28-10 margin with 9:31 left.

Minnesota added a Wettstein field goal with 4:14 left, and Toussaint broke free on a 41-yard touchdown run in the final moments. But the Wolverines had long since done what they needed to do - put the cork back in the Jug and pack it for home.


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