Watching the Michigan offense with Devin Gardner at the helm on Saturday was something of a revelation. In it, Michigan largely eschewed the read options and shotgun looks that typified the Denard Robinson-led offense and went more pro-style, running plays from under center and working off play-action in the passing game.
And you know what? It worked really well, even when Gardner's passes weren't perfect.
Yes, the Wolverines were playing Minnesota, but don't kid yourself: Minnesota has an awfully good defense. Even after Gardner's performance (12-18, 234 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), the Gophers' pass defense still ranks third in the Big Ten in yards allowed and fourth in passing efficiency.
According to AnnArbor.com, it was good enough for Michigan to commit to putting Gardner back at quarterback next season. Here's more about the original move to WR and the planned move back under center:
Gardner, a junior who backed up Robinson the past two years, moved to receiver in the offseason to capitalize on his athleticism. He made a seamless transition, racking up 16 catches for 266 yards and a team-high four touchdowns in the first eight games.
That cast some doubt on whether he would return to quarterback. But Hoke said that's been the plan all along.
"We spoke about it (when I made the move)—me, Coach Hoke and (offensive coordinator Al) Borges," Gardner said. "We made sure of that...because that's a goal of mine, and they're catering to that.
"I'm just helping the team this year, and still helping the team this year. If they need me at quarterback right now, or if they need me at receiver, I'll be able to do it."
Now, Gardner should hop right back to receiver once Robinson's healthy, because Robinson does more for the Michigan offense and the track record between the two easily puts any type of comparison to rest. Robinson is the Michigan offense at this point, and he's going to have both the numbers and the overall win-loss record to back it up when this is all said and done.
Again, reiterating: Denard Robinson should still play over Devin Gardner. We clear on that? Good.
That being said, one certainly gets the sense that Gardner is the actual type of quarterback Al Borges would like to have, because that Michigan offense looked considerably more comfortable working in a pro-style than it has all year in the spread.
Mgoblog did a magnificent job last week breaking down Michigan's run-blocking woes out of the spread. Inside linebackers go unblocked with regularity in that scheme, read options don't involve any reading and defenses aren't forced to account for Robinson's rushing ability on straight handoffs.
Against Minnesota, though? The blocking was at least more consistent (if not world-class), Gardner was able to complete throws on the move in play-action and even the tailbacks got more involved in the running game.
Fitz Toussaint only rushed for 70 yards on the day, but 70 yards just so happens to be his best output for the entire season against teams not named "Massachusetts." Thomas Rawls had less success with 16 rushes for only 43 yards, but he was able to get into the end zone and he looked very capable in the pass-blocking game, which is crucial when running out of a pro set.
Remember, this is all in an offense that Michigan hasn't run much with Denard Robinson at the helm—though Al Borges tried to make it work early on. Borges is more familiar with the pro-style, however, and his two-year stint with Brady Hoke at San Diego State before the two went on to Michigan was about as far away as you could get from a spread option look.
Of course, it's too early to say who's starting at quarterback for Michigan next year. Gardner put forth one stellar effort on Saturday, Russell Bellomy has been the first man in for Robinson all year until last week and incoming 5-star prospect Shane Morris is going to be as prepared as any true freshman QB in the nation next year.
But no matter who's under center, it looks as if Michigan's staying, well, under center and going pro style, and it'll be interesting to see how the Wolverine offense operates when it's got a quarterback whose skills mirror what Al Borges wants to do.
Right now it looks like that's Devin Gardner.