Michigan's offensive forecast looked gloomy Oct. 27, when quarterback Denard Robinson aggravated an elbow injury and Russell Bellomy struggled mightily in relief as the Wolverines lost to Nebraska. At that point, Devin Gardner's contributions this season had been as a receiver (16 receptions, four touchdowns). But Gardner returned to the quarterback spot a week after the Nebraska setback, sparked the Wolverines offense and raised hope for the future with his play. Gardner earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors in two of his first three starts and accounted for at least three touchdowns in all four of his starts to close the regular season. The 6-foot-4, 203-pound Gardner is Michigan's future at quarterback for the next year (maybe two), but he'll face his biggest test yet Tuesday against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Led by All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina ranks fifth nationally in sacks (3.33 per game) and 12th in both total defense (312.3 ypg) and scoring defense (17.4 ppg).
ESPN.com caught up with Gardner to discuss the bowl game.
What has it been like to go through these last few weeks as the starting quarterback?
Devin Gardner: It's been fun, just being able to prepare as the Michigan quarterback. Protecting the football and playing my best are the two main things I'm working on. Coach [Al] Borges talks about surprises. Don't do anything you haven't done in practice. I need to play within myself and play hard.
You were thrown into the quarterback spot again after Denard went down. How beneficial has the extra time been for you as a quarterback?
DG: It's been really beneficial. I've been able to study a lot of film on South Carolina and study my own game.
What did you learn from watching yourself in those last four games?
DG: A lot of things. Everything isn't perfect, so I have to improve on everything that I do. I have to do everything I can to help the football team win, and don't hinder the football team in any way.
What stands out to you about South Carolina's defense?
DG: They're a typical SEC defense. They're built to stop the run, and they're pretty fast. Michigan State had pretty good speed, and obviously Alabama did, too. They compare to those two defenses. Both of their ends are pretty good: Jadeveon Clowney and 98 [Devin Taylor], they're really long and really tall and really athletic. I like the way their ends play.
Does Clowney remind you of anyone you've seen in the Big Ten or elsewhere?
DG: I can't really say there's anybody who resembles him. He's pretty much his own player. He's really athletic, he's strong, he's a large individual.
How can your mobility help you when going against these types of pass-rushers?
DG: Definitely, it allows me to get out of jams that I may get myself in, or that my teammates may get me in. In a football game, you never know what's going to happen, so being athletic, it really helps.
What has it been like working with Denard [Robinson] these past few weeks as both of your roles have changed a little bit?
DG: It's been great. He's been a great support. I just can't wait to see what he does in his last game. With Denard, you never know what's going to happen. There's always something special. I can't wait.
What's the best piece of advice he's given you going into a game like this?
DG: Know that the outside stuff doesn't matter. Focus on your goals.
How do you expect him to perform in this game, his last as a Wolverine?
DG: I have no idea. You can't really predict what's going to happen with an athlete like Denard. I'm going to sit there and watch it, just like you guys.
With some extra time to prepare, how different will your offense be from what we saw in the Ohio State game?
DG: Our offense is going to be the same. Coach Borges isn't going to change for this football game. We'll have the same offense. We're just going to try to do what we do well to be able to play well. All the receivers are catching the ball well and everybody's healthy, so that's a big thing, and the scout team did a really good job preparing us for their defense. Everybody's playing hard.
What would a win mean for your team? I know you guys wanted to win a Big Ten championship this year, but what's the significance of this game?
DG: It'll mean we start off 2013 at 1-0. That's just a springboard to winter workouts and spring ball and summer workouts and next season. I mean, this is a vital part of our success next year, to win this football game.
Alabama was a long time ago, but what can you show as a team about where you've come since that game?
DG: If you're the same in Week 1 as you are in Week 13 or 14, there's a problem. It means we haven't improved. So we're trying to show we've improved and we're ready to play.