MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps this is what the Michigan offense was supposed to look like all season.
No matter that it's already the ninth game or that the game's starting quarterback was a wide receiver. No matter that the usual starting quarterback (who many believe is better suited as a wide receiver or running back) spent the day on the sideline. Because the Wolverines produced, converted and behind its stand-in QB, they left Minnesota with a 35-13 victory and the Little Brown Jug.
"It didn't surprise us," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of Devin Gardner's performance. "His ability, getting a lot of snaps, obviously -- he has been in the offense enough, he knows most of it. … I think he did a nice job of managing the team."
But Gardner's success on the field against the Golden Gophers only makes Michigan's quarterback situation blurrier -- this season and next. Hoke said if Denard Robinson's ulnar nerve injury is sufficiently healed, the senior will start and that there's no competition, which is understandable given Robinson's skill set and experience. But Gardner played one of the more comprehensive and solid games at quarterback that Michigan has seen this season.
Gardner completed 66.7 percent of his passes Saturday. The only game this season which Robinson matched that was against Massachusetts (which was also the only game in which Robinson accounted for more passing yardage). So despite his pocket-passing presence, Gardner will be relegated to the backup QB position. He'll take the spot of redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy, who didn't play against Minnesota because of an undisclosed injury. And presumably, walk-on Jack Kennedy, who played in the final minutes against Minnesota, will take the third-string spot.
Gardner hadn't taken a snap at quarterback this season and didn't get into many practice reps until after Robinson's injury against Nebraska. Hoke said Gardner will continue taking reps in practice as the Wolverines prepare for Northwestern next Saturday.
"We'll stay taking the quarterback reps and we may be able to get to a point where he can do a little bit more of both," Hoke said.
But as the game started, it looked as though Gardner's lack of quarterback practice reps would hurt Michigan. In the first series, the Wolverines were forced into a three-and-out as Gardner was sacked on third-and-3. In the second possession, he threw an interception, followed by another three-and-out on the third possesion. The Wolverines only managed to possess the ball for 3:46 in the first quarter and didn't get a first down until the second quarter.
Hoke said Robinson would've possibly been able to play against Minnesota in an emergency, but three poor series and a 7-0 Minnesota lead didn't qualify.
"[Gardner] has played a lot of quarterback; he has worked a lot of quarterback," Hoke said. "It's the old riding-the-bike theory, kind of to some degree."
Gardner said he didn't feel as if there were any rust in his game, but having not taken significant quarterback snaps this season, he really only had a week to work himself into a system that Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have created that highlights Robinson's unique skill set.
"The pass game was OK for me," Gardner said. "The thing was protections and making sure I get in the right protections. There's a lot of new run game, so checking to the right runs and things like that. I was pretty nervous coming in to know how to handle that. But I feel like I handled it pretty well."
Against Minnesota, Gardner was just as effective passing under center as he was in the pro-style set, though he accounted for 18 more yards in the shotgun formation. In both the pro set and the shotgun, he completed six passes and threw three incompletions. However, both touchdowns were scored with Gardner in the gun.
And in the run game, Michigan favored being under center, with all three rushing touchdowns coming out of that formation. The Wolverines appeared in that set about twice as often on running plays, but per rush attempt, Michigan was more effective in the shotgun.
It was a different look, and after Bellomy's disappointing performance against Nebraska and Gardner's surprising performance against Minnesota, the latter is what Michigan fans could be looking forward to as they peek to next season.
"He fashions himself as a quarterback," Hoke said about Gardner. "It tells you a little about him and his character."