Devin Gardner shows glimpse of future

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- He saw the pocket collapsing around him and his offense barely hanging on to any momentum. In that moment, Devin Gardner stepped up, avoided the pressure from both Illinois and from replacing the injured Denard Robinson and scanned downfield.

It was there he found a wide open Martavious Odoms, the former starting wide receiver-turned-role player, around the Illinois 10-yard line. He threaded the pass, hitting Odoms in stride for a touchdown.

The pass and catch sealed Michigan's 31-14 win over Illinois on Saturday but also did more than that. That play showed the potential of the Wolverines' future. Make no mistake, Robinson is clearly still Michigan's present at quarterback.

But Gardner, in his most extensive and meaningful action, made the play when he needed to. It was the sophomore's first touchdown pass of the season.

"He made a really nice play when he stepped up in the pocket to Martavious and threw the touchdown pass," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You have to really see if he got us in and out of all the right things, which I think he did play-wise.

"So I think he did a nice job."

It was a performance that wouldn't have happened had Robinson not bruised his wrist on a hit by Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown with a little less than 11 minutes left in the third quarter.

Gardner entered on Michigan's next drive but didn't throw a pass until his fifth play. It was the first time he played Saturday, a departure from the team's previous Big Ten games, when he had been in anywhere from four-to-15 plays as part of the Wolverines' "deuce" package. That package has Gardner at quarterback and Robinson somewhere else on the field.

This time, with Robinson hurt, it was all Gardner.

He entered a game in which Michigan had a 14-0 lead but had stalled offensively. Robinson had committed three turnovers, although his interception was on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, and looked as he had all season -- moments of good play followed by mind-boggling poor decisions.

At first, it was more of the same with Gardner. But slowly, as one drive turned to two and three, he appeared to be more comfortable. More confident. More like the quarterback some expect he eventually will become for Michigan.

"Any player, the more snaps they get, the more comfortable they get," Odoms said. "He got comfortable, got settled down."

And as Michigan remained somewhat in control of the game, Hoke stayed with Gardner up 10 points in the fourth quarter instead of going back to Robinson, whom Hoke said could have returned. Neither quarterback was made available to the media after the game.

Robinson finished 6 of 10 with 92 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and two fumbles lost. Gardner was 2-of-5 passing for 47 yards and a touchdown. Neither ran the ball much -- Robinson 12 times for 30 yards and two touchdowns -- although both were set up by the career-high 192 yards gained by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Gardner had two rushes for nine yards.

But it was the best effort Michigan had seen from Gardner thus far this year.

"I don't know. I really don't know," Hoke said, "until I sit down with (offensive coordinator) Al (Borges), because there's so much that quarterbacks have to do. And he threw a great touchdown pass, stood up in the pocket well and those kinds of things, that's a great play.

"I think he's played as well as I've seen him play."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.