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November 18, 2012

Notebook: Wolverines Continue To Air It Out

Junior quarterback Devin Gardner has now started three games en lieu of senior Denard Robinson, who is still nursing a nerve injury in his throwing elbow.

Since Gardner took the reigns of the offense, he has amassed 834 passing yards, including a career-high 314 in Saturday's 42-17 win over Iowa.

Gardner is averaging 278 passing yards per game in his three starts.

Before Gardner breathed life into Michigan's aerial game, the Wolverines had compiled just 1,372 total passing yards through their first eight games (171.5 yards per game).

In the first seven games, Michigan completed 94-of-191 pass attempts, completing 49.2 percent of its passes. Robinson had completed 89-of-166 (53.6 percent) on the year.

Since then, Gardner has connected on 65.7 percent of his passes (46-of-70).

And Saturday was his best game yet.

Gardner tallied 314 passing yards on 18-of-23 passing (78.3 percent) and threw three touchdowns. The Wolverines hadn't compiled 300-plus passing yards in a game since the sixth week of the 2011 season, when Robinson burned Northwestern for 337 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-24 win.

"Devin is really calm," fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Sometimes he'll pull one of those [mistakes] out where he'll have to call a timeout at the start of the play, but he has really stayed humble and led this team. I'm confident in what he can do."

Gardner also stretched the field with a vertical passing game the Wolverines have struggled to find thus far. Eight of his completions went for 15 or more yards, and three of them went for at least 30, including a game-long 51-yard bomb to redshirt junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon.

"Our front is blocking better, and part of that is the play action game with the I Backs that has helped," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

"Yeah, some of the coverages they were throwing out, probably were blown and Devin was seeing the open throws," Roundtree added of the downfield throws.

"It's always fun, catching balls and being a receiver. Our main thing is knockdowns. Plus, we have to make the big plays when they need to be made, and I feel like we did a great job of that today."

Gardner attributed much of his success Saturday to an aggressive gameplan by offensive coordinator Al Borges, which used Robinson as a running back, giving him the ball on option runs, swinging him out on screen passes and, sometimes, using him as a decoy.

Gardner could see the confusion on the Iowa defense.

"They had no idea what was going to come," he said. "They thought they knew. They would always yell out when Denard was in the game, but they didn't know what play we were going to run.

"They did it in practice, too. [Michigan sophomore defensive end] Frank Clark - we ran a tailback slip-screen - and he was like, 'We know what's coming, we know what's coming.' And I was like, 'No, you don't. You have know idea. You think you do, but you don't.' And then we threw right over their heads, and it happened the exact same way in the game today, and we scored a touchdown."

Gardner was referring to an 18-yard touchdown catch by senior running back Vincent Smith, on which Gardner rolled to his right, the defense bit on the play-action and he tossed the ball back to the right side of the field, where the Wolverines had perfectly set up a screen pass.

Note: Defense Overcomes Slow Start

The Hawkeyes strolled into The Big House with the No. 109 offense in the country, averaging just 321.6 yards per game. Michigan, on the other hand, boasted the No. 11 defense in the country (302.9 yards per game).

After three drives, however, it looked as though Iowa had figured something out in the Wolverines' defense.

The Hawkeyes stalled on their first drive but easily moved the ball down the field for a touchdown and a field goal on their second and third drives, respectively. Five-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter, Iowa had already racked up 128 yards of offense and 10 points. Quarterback James Vandenberg had connected on 9-of-12 passed for 76 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

"We missed some sacks, we didn't tackle, they were knocking us off the line of scrimmage earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "It was awful."

Vandenberg's passing attack was - especially early - was centered around his two big, talented tight ends. Junior C.J Fiedorowicz and Henry Krieger Coble were on the receiving end of Vandenberg's first nine completions, including the touchdown pass (caught by Kiegler Coble). They finished with a combined 11 catches for 123 yards and a score.

"They got their tight ends in space," fifth-year senior middle linebacker Kenny Demens said. "They have some great tight ends. [Fiedorowicz], he's a guy who can run well. They put him in space and let him do what he does."

Hoke's harsh words after the game did not seem to bother fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. He's used to the expectations and knows the defense will have to eliminate those kinds of lapses, if they want to finish strong.

"That's one of the things I talk about all the time - the high standards the coaches set," he said. "Iowa put together a couple of nice drives, and we didn't do a good job on first downs. The key to stopping them was on first down, if you could get them out of their running game. They had some success on first down, and we can't let that happen."

On those first three drives, the Hawkeyes averaged 7.5 yards per play on first down, which set them up with more options on second and third down.

But from that point on, the Wolverines clamped down. After Iowa's first three drives, it gained just 36 yards of offense until the fourth quarter - when the score was 42-10 and Hoke began cycling in the backups.

On their first three drives, the Hawkeyes averaged 5.1 yards per play. On their next four drives, the averaged just 3.0 yards per play and did not gain a single first down. By then, the game was ostensibly over.

And, to Kovacs' point about yardage on first downs, Iowa gained a combined negative-one yards on their four first-down plays during that stretch.

"In the second half, we did a much better job on first down, put them in second-and-long a couple of times," Kovacs said. "We've got to tip our hats to the offense. They did a great job of controlling the ball, controlling the game, and ultimately, that's what won us the game."

A big part of the Wolverines' defensive resurgence in the mid-second quarter was the play of the linebackers - including young players who stepped up big. The linebacking corps combined for 31 tackles, including a game-high 12 from freshman outside linebacker James Ross and six more from freshman middle linebacker Joe Bolden.

"I've worked with the young linebackers a lot," said Demens, who added five tackles. "I remember the older guys when I first started playing, and how they took me under their wing. They taught me how to watch film, how to use proper technique, how to defeat a block, and that's something I'm passing down.

"They have great coaches, too. They're quick learners, and they're going to be great here."

Note: U-M's Win Special For Seniors In Last Home Game

Fifth-year senior cornerback J.T. Floyd trotted back toward the Michigan Stadium tunnel after celebrating the Wolverines' 42-17 win over Iowa with his teammates in front of the student section.

He stopped to hug strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman, walked toward the tunnel and then stopped dead in his tracks.

He turned back around, his eyes soaking in The Big House, listening to the marching band blare The Victors and watching the commotion on the field.

He didn't say anything, just smiled.

Floyd and the other Michigan seniors played their last home game as members of the Wolverine football team - and Floyd wasn't the only player to allow himself a moment of retrospection before he left The Big House.

"Just getting the W and going back up that tunnel, seeing all the media taking pictures and the fans screaming, I really got chill-bumps," fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree said. "I really enjoyed my time playing here, and I left it all out on the field every play."

"The seniors got to go up the tunnel sing The Victors for the last time in this stadium," Michigan coach Brady Hoke added. "We put a lot of emphasis on that because of the struggles and what they go through when you look at a guy who has been here four or five yeas. It was great for them, great for our team that the younger guys, the underclassmen went out and competed for them. That's the expectations.

"The seniors that played in their last game at Michigan Stadium. I thought they did a nice job going out and playing 60 minutes of football."

The fifth-year seniors, like Floyd, Roundtree, center Elliott Mealer, guard Patrick Omameh and others, saw the Wolverines go .500 at home in their first three years on campus (11-11 from 2008-10), including difficult losses to Toledo, Michigan State (twice) and Ohio State.

But since Hoke arrived, the Wolverines have reclaimed their dominance at home. In the 2011 and '12 seasons, Michigan went undefeated at home, a perfect 14-0.

The resounding win over the Hawkeyes put a stamp on the program's resurgence.

"The guys stuck it out and really became Michigan men," Roundtree said. "We eventually felt the tradition, and Coach Hoke really emphasized that we can't let anybody come to our house and take over. That's something the seniors from last year did, and the seniors from Team 133 also did."

"I just felt myself kind of get emotional, looking at the fans and spinning around in a 360 motion," fifth-year senior Kenny Demens added. "I was thinking, this is the last go-around. Normally, I'm like the first person to go up the tunnel. Today, I was maybe the last person. I just took it all in, to keep all those good memories."


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