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Thursday, August 22, 2013
Gardner upgrades offensive potency

By Robert Nelson, ESPN Stats & Info

Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner will have a lot of responsibility in 2013 as he tries to lead Michigan to a Big Ten title.
During his time in Ann Arbor, Denard Robinson put up huge numbers, passing for 6,250 yards and rushing for an FBS-record (for a quarterback) 4,495 yards in his career.

When Robinson went down with an elbow injury against Nebraska last season, Michigan turned to Devin Gardner, and Wolverine fans got to see  a glimpse of their future. How bright is that future?

We can quantify how well Gardner performed using ESPN’s new Total QBR metric for college football, which uses all of a quarterback's plays (passing, rushing, fumbles, sacks and penalties) and accounts for the context of the game situation while adjusting for the quality of defenses faced.

In five games last season, Gardner had a Total QBR of 90.6. Gardner did not have enough plays to qualify for the Total QBR season title, but among players with at least 175 action plays, he had the highest Total QBR in the country. Johnny Manziel (90.5) and Marcus Mariota (87.3) both finished the season with lower Total QBRs than Gardner.

A big reason the metrics love Gardner is because of  his play in the red zone and on third down. Throw in the emergence of Jeremy Gallon, and Michigan fans have good reason to believe Gardner will be an upgrade over Robinson at quarterback.

Red-zone efficiency
Simply put, the Michigan offense excelled in the red zone with Gardner at quarterback, scoring on all 18 trips inside its opponents’ 20, including 15 touchdowns.

Of those 15 touchdowns, Gardner accounted for 13 scores (six passing, seven rushing) while completing 67 percent of his passes and not throwing a single interception.

In the eight games Robinson started, the Michigan offense scored a touchdown on just half of its 28 red-zone trips.

Third-down passing
Eight of Gardner’s 11 passing touchdowns last season came on third down. In his last two seasons combined, Robinson threw eight touchdowns on third down.

In addition to throwing more passing touchdowns on third down than Robinson last season, Gardner threw fewer interceptions, completed a higher percentage of his passes and averaged almost twice as many yards per attempt.

Gardner also ran for more touchdowns on third down than Robinson, who dazzled Michigan fans with his legs during his career.

Emergence of Gallon
With Gardner at quarterback in Michigan’s final five games of the season, Gallon caught 31 passes and three touchdowns. In Michigan’s first eight games, Gallon had 18 catches and one touchdown.

Gardner completed 66 percent of his passes when targeting Gallon, including six passes of 30 or more yards. Gallon went from a relative unknown to one of 75 players selected to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which honors the nation’s top receiver, and is the unquestioned No. 1 receiver for the Wolverines.

Gardner and Michigan will be tested early when Notre Dame visits the Big House on Sept. 7 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). In last season’s loss to the Irish, the Wolverines did not score in six trips to the red zone.

Maybe Gardner will be the difference this time around.