Efficient quarterback play is often what separates championship teams from the wannabes.
Through three games of the 2013 season, the Michigan Wolverines already have one problem that could eventually cost them a shot at a Big Ten conference title: Devin Gardner's head-scratching decisions.
This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the redshirt junior's four-turnover game against the Akron Zips either. In fact, last Saturday (Sept. 14) was the second consecutive weekend during which Gardner made a costly mistake that resulted in a drastic change in momentum.
One play stood out above all else from Michigan's 41-30 victory over Notre Dame, and it was not one of Gardner's five touchdowns.
On this play, the Inkster High School product compounded a bad decision—trying to escape a sack by backing up into his own end zone—with an absolutely atrocious one. See for yourself below:
The two most important things to note about this are the time and score.
Michigan is already ahead by two touchdowns with 12:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines do not need a big play. All Gardner has to do is take care of the football, keep the clock rolling and force the Fighting Irish to put together not one, but two touchdown drives to tie the game.
Instead, Gardner gave Notre Dame new life.
Even on the 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive Michigan used to put the game away, Gardner struggled. Were it not for a questionable pass interference call, his late throw to the sideline would have resulted in an interception. Plus, 53 yards on that drive belonged to running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Take out the 31-yard pass Gardner completed to Toussaint out of the backfield and what remains is a line that reads: 2-of-4, six total yards and one touchdown.
This whole thing could be chalked up to one bad play and another that was wiped out by a penalty—questionable or not.
However, Andy Reid of TheWolverine pointed out that turnovers were already a problem for Gardner entering this season.
I don't want to discount Gardner's ability, but he has thrown at least one interception in each of his seven starts.— Andy Reid (@AReid_Wolverine) September 8, 2013
Concerns boiled over in the second quarter against Akron. On three straight drives, Gardner turned the ball over.
First, a fumble at the Zips' 10-yard line. Next, he forced a pass into coverage instead of checking down to an open receiver. It resulted in an interception, the second turnover in the red zone.
The third mistake is only partially Gardner's fault. To be fair, the interception in the final minute of the first half went right off the hands of tight end Devin Funchess. The throw may have been a bit high, but Funchess had more than enough range to snag it.
Still, Gardner threw right into three Akron defenders, which is a recipe for disaster more times than not.
The fourth and final turnover felt like Notre Dame all over again. Gardner fails to spot a linebacker breaking on the halfback screen and throws the ball right to Justin March. Pick-six.
Again, what should irk the Maize and Blue faithful the most is the timing of this serious error. Michigan led Akron 21-10 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter and had regained control of a game in which it struggled mightily.
Gardner's gift allowed the Zips to seize momentum and eventually take a 24-20 lead after a pair of stagnant possessions.
The 6'4", 210-pounder went on to rack up 55 yards on two plays to set up Toussaint's game-winning, two-yard touchdown run.
Against Big Ten competition, though, the game may have already been beyond saving. It is tough to win a conference game with four turnovers.
Garnder's superior athleticism is as much a blessing as it is a curse. The Detroit native tries too hard at times to make something out of nothing. When it works, opposing defenses are baffled and the Wolverines offense is one of the nation's best. Conversely, it can result in egregious mental mistakes.
"Superman has to be smart too. He doesn't eat kryptonite," Hoke said in reference to his signal-caller.
As much as the Superman mentality and turnovers are major red flags, the Wolverines are still 3-0. Facing Connecticut—which lost to Towson of the FCS ranks—and Minnesota over the next three weeks does not exactly breathe a whole lot of fear into Michigan fans either.
Come Oct. 12, when the Wolverines go on the road to face Penn State, those poor decisions could wind up costing them a much-needed victory.
Same goes for four of the five games Michigan has in November.
Say whatever you like about Michigan State's offense, but its defense is among the best in the country and already has four touchdowns. Nebraska will put up a fight at the Big House, Northwestern should have beaten the Wolverines last year and Ohio State looks like the real deal—unlike in 2012, when it struggled against lesser competition.
Any, or all, of the five aforementioned games could come down to just one play.
Being concerned about what Gardner will do with a trip to Indianapolis hanging in the balance is not an overreaction, it is simply an observation of what he has done in big moments thus far.
Michigan should not have a problem bouncing back and putting the scare it got from Akron in the rear-view mirror. If the Wolverines fail to dominate Connecticut on Saturday, then it may be time to reevaluate where they stand among the rest of the Big Ten.
Unless Gardner can make the right throws and eliminate the game-changing turnovers, Michigan will be sitting at home watching the Big Ten Championship Game and wondering what could have been.
Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.
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