- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Devin Gardner trotted onto the Michigan Stadium turf with 18 seconds left, Michigan trailing by three points and, for the quarterback making his second career start, one more question of his capability rising up.
Consider it answered. Any questions about Gardner's ability to play quarterback passed with one final throw, one last drive. Gardner scrambled around and saw Roy Roundtree open. He threw it up, an on-target heave 53 yards in the air.
Roundtree leapt, tipped the ball, felt it hit his helmet and he grabbed it -- not quite in David Tyree style, but close. It put Michigan in position to kick a field goal, tie the game and eventually come from behind to beat Northwestern 38-31 in overtime on Saturday.
In putting together that last-second drive, along with touchdown drives of 78 and 91 yards Saturday, Gardner took another step in his development and made the continuing question escalate.
With each successive week and each successive completion, with each good performance and strong drive, instilling confidence in everyone surrounding him, Gardner makes this tougher and tougher. Denard Robinson might not be healthy now, but at some point before the end of this season he likely will be.
So what does Michigan coach Brady Hoke do? Does he go back to the senior quarterback who played for the past three seasons, who could amaze and confound, all in the same series? Or does he stick with the junior who showed up the past two weeks and consistently moved the Wolverines down the field, created offensive production and made positive play after positive play?
"I think that's probably something we'll figure out," Hoke said.
It's a tough question, one Michigan has to at least consider, especially if Robinson's arm strength is questionable.
Gardner's last two opponents might not have been Alabama or Notre Dame, but they were average for the Big Ten. Entering Saturday, Northwestern had allowed 393.78 yards and 22.33 points a game. Gardner pushed the Wildcats for 333 all-purpose yards Saturday. Minnesota entered Saturday giving up 24.44 points and 343.56 yards a game.
Gardner played well against both of them, showing a mentality of winning with little time left -- see the pass to Roundtree -- and also an easygoing nature that relaxes his teammates and inspires confidence. Not that Robinson didn't and doesn't -- he was one of the first to find Roundtree after the game to celebrate -- but there seems to be an efficiency in Gardner that isn't always there with Robinson.
Even when Gardner played wide receiver the first eight games of this season, he insisted he was still a quarterback, that even as he grew on the outside, what was inside told him he wanted to be the one throwing passes instead of catching them. He has always understood his role and where he fit in, even if it meant sitting on the bench while Robinson ran wild.
"I knew my time would come eventually," Gardner said. "Whether it would be this year or next year. It just happened to come a little earlier than expected. It's not like, 'Ha ha, in your face,' type of thing.
"It's just that I saw what I had done in previous years, and I hadn't proven that I was that quarterback that I felt like I was and my teammates knew that I was."
The "time" he refers to may just be starting right now.
He completed 16 of 29 passes for 286 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while also rushing for 47 yards and two scores against Northwestern on top of a 12-of-18, 234-yard, two-touchdown game against Minnesota.
Yet he still doesn't feel complete ownership yet. Whether it was deference or how he truly feels deep down, his plan is to continue to fit in anywhere Michigan wants.
"This is Denard's team, and it's always going to be Denard's team until he's gone," Gardner said. "He's done way too much for two games to change that. I'll just do what I have to do to help the team."
There's the rub. Robinson has done a lot in his Michigan career and been one of the more exhilarating players in Wolverines history. But to help his team, Gardner is starting to show he is more than a one-game wonder, more than the curiosity of what the backup quarterback can do when the starter is struggling.
With every snap he takes, pass he completes and touchdown drive he leads, Gardner is showing he is not only Michigan's future at quarterback, he might be the better fit as its present as well.
It is not an easy decision either way, but at some point this season, Hoke might very well have to make it.