With a scintillating performance in Saturday's 35-13 victory over the Minnesota Gophers, Michigan Wolverines quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned-quarterback Devin Gardner proved the team can survive without starter Denard Robinson—at least in the short term.
Gardner started in Week 10 in place of Robinson, who sat out the game with an injury, and led the Wolverines offense down the field consistently after a bit of a rough start.
Facing a Minnesota defense that came into Saturday as the second-best unit in the Big Ten, the junior completed 12-of-18 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns against just one interception.
That alone is impressive, considering he had played wide receiver all season until practice this week. Nonetheless, it was his comfort in the pocket and the confidence with which he led the offense that was most impressive.
After struggling for much of the season with Robinson at the helm, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had a bit of a renaissance as well, gaining 70 yards on just 13 carries on Saturday. As a whole, Michigan gained 155 yards on the ground to frustrate the Gophers defense with a balanced attack.
Considering the Wolverines' massive offensive struggles of late, Saturday was nothing short of a fantastic sign. What's more, according to MLive.com's Kyle Meinke, Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke expects Robinson back next week:
Hoke said he's optimistic Denard Robinson will play next week. Of course, he was also optimistic Denard would play this week.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) November 3, 2012
With a matchup against the 7-2 Northwestern Wildcats on tap, you would think that folks in Ann Arbor would be rejoicing. However, I have a feeling I'm not the only one wondering how well Gardner would perform if he started next week against Northwestern.
Before you go screaming blasphemy, let's remember how much Robinson has struggled this season. His stats are mostly propped up against poor opponents, as the dual-threat quarterback has floundered against top-tier opposition.
Of Michigan's nine games thus far, only three (Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan State) came against elite defenses. In those contests, Robinson is a paltry 38-of-79 (48.1 percent) passing for 501 yards and one touchdown against seven interceptions.
Obviously, whoever faces Northwestern next week won't have to worry about facing that level of defense. Northwestern has compiled its record despite a defense that ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten against the pass.
However, with contests against the Iowa Hawkeyes and rival Ohio State Buckeyes lined up for the final two weeks of the regular season, it would be interesting to see what Gardner can do against better competition.
Saturday proved that the Wolverines can survive without their preseason Heisman favorite. If they allow Gardner to start on Saturday, we'll get a chance to see if Michigan can thrive the rest of the season without him.
It was a completely unlikely scenario heading into Week 10—and it may still be. But it's one Hoke should consider with the Big Ten championship still very much up for grabs.