After one quarter in Minnesota Saturday, things did not look good for Michigan. The Wolverines had no points, no first downs and seemingly little hope. With Denard Robinson injured and on the sideline, Michigan looked every bit as lost without him as they did the previous week against Nebraska. After scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, Minnesota took 7-0 lead, but the more telling statistics were total yards and time of possession, where the Golden Gophers dominated Michigan 78 to 9 and 11:19 to 3:46, respectively. It was an inauspicious start, to say the least. And when combined with its second half performance against Nebraska, in which Michigan managed a mere 52 yards of total offense, the future suddenly looked very bleak for the Wolverines - in 2012 and beyond.
It's no secret that the Michigan offense relies heavily on Robinson. After all, he'd accounted for nearly 75% of the Michigan's total yards prior to his injury. I'm not sure, however, that anyone knew the full extent to which Michigan relied on Robinson, or to put it another way, how utterly inept the Wolverines could look without him. Robinson's injury did more than diminish Michigan's chances of beating the Cornhuskers, it also provided a glimpse into what the 2013 offense might look like - and it didn't look good.
Robinson has been the driving force behind the Michigan offense for the past three seasons, but where does Michigan turn after he graduates? Sure, quarterback-of-the-future Shane Morris in the fold, but he is currently finishing his senior year in high school and can't be expected to contribute anytime soon. Russell Bellomy doesn't appear to be ready and Devin Gardner, who has been spotty in prior relief appearances, didn't look much more comfortable running the offense in the first quarter against the Golden Gophers than Bellomy did against the Huskers. With few promising options at quarterback, Brady Hoke's rebuilding project looked like it may take longer than previously thought.
Then, in one play, everything changed.
While Gardner replaced Bellomy at quarterback Saturday, other than the uniform number, it initially looked as if little else had changed. On three first quarter possessions, Gardner led the Wolverines to two three-and-outs and threw one interception. Then, on Michigan's first possession of the second quarter, facing a third and 17 from the Minnesota 45 yard line, Gardner dropped back, scrambled to his right, reversed to his left, and while on the run launched a 45 yard strike to Drew Dileo for a game-tying touchdown. Gardner went on to complete 12 of 18 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another, as he led the Wolverines to a 35-13 victory.
Gardner showed a little rust, but looked comfortable and decisive while leading the Wolverines. Impressive for someone making his first career start, close to remarkable for someone who's taken so few practice reps at quarterback this season. Gardner showed the ability to evade tacklers and gain yards with his legs when necessary, but also showed that he's a pass-first quarterback who can run, not the other way around. Gardner made several throws that showed off his arm strength, but what was most impressive about his performance was that he repeatedly displayed the ability to look downfield when his protection broke down, always looking for the big play through the air. And while it was only three quarters of football against a 5-4 team, Gardner's performance was nonetheless encouraging, and provides hope that Hoke and Offensive Coordinator Al Borges may have the downfield passing threat that they so desire.
Denard Robinson will go down as one of the most popular players ever to wear a Michigan uniform, and for good reason, setting numerous school, conference and NCAA records over the course of his career. When Robinson plays his last game, Michigan will lose a transcendent player. However, it won't lose its entire offense. In fact, if Gardner can play at the level at which he played against Minnesota, Michigan's offense has the chance to be every bit as good, if not better next year, something that didn't seem possible a week earlier.