What Michigan QB Devin Gardner Must Fix Before Big Ten Play
A Week 5 bye couldn't have come at a better time for Devin Gardner and the struggling Michigan Wolverines.
UM begins Big Ten Conference play next week with a home game against Minnesota, which made it through its nonconference slate unscathed.
The Wolverines are undefeated as well and looked poised to challenge Ohio State for the league crown after taking down Notre Dame, 41-30, in a Week 2 thriller.
However, since that victory, they have looked nothing like a legitimate contender. Much of that is due to the struggles of Gardner under center.
More specifically, his 7-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio stands as a major red flag for Michigan going into conference play.
UM was about two feet away from being kicked off the cliff by Akron just a week after beating ND. The Zips were inside Michigan's 5-yard line, but saw their final pass attempt fall just short in the end zone, allowing the Wolverines to escape with a 28-24 win.
Gardner and All-American lineman Taylor Lewan repeatedly told the media in that postgame press conference that they would turn things around and wouldn't come out and play poorly again.
In the week of preparation afterward, Gardner took it further and told the media, "It starts with me...It has to be me that picks us up when mistakes are being made to make sure that we turn it all around."
The following week, the mistakes continued.
The maize and blue needed a 17-point second-half rally to again avoid an upset at the hands of Connecticut. The same UConn squad that was thumped in its opener, 33-18, by FCS foe Towson.
In those two close calls, Gardner tossed five interceptions—three against Akron and two against UConn.
SI.com tabbed the UM signal-caller as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in the preseason, but he has looked nothing like one outside of the win over the Irish.
The obvious point of emphasis for Gardner going forward is ball security and decision-making, where he and Michigan have been atrocious this year.
Including Gardner's eight total interceptions, Michigan has thrown nine picks this season—putting it in a three-way tie for No. 122 in the nation in that category.
With 10 picks, only Western Kentucky has completed more passes to the wrong team than UM.
That, plus three fumbles, has left the Wolverines with a turnover margin of minus-five, which will make winning in conference play extremely difficult.
Can Michigan still win the Big Ten?
A good starting point will be the ground game—particularly the zone read.
Zone-read plays and the overall ground game have helped to establish an offensive tempo as well as a source of individual success for Gardner. The junior has reached the end zone on the ground in every game this year and averaged 75 rushing yards per game, slotting him at No. 5 among all quarterbacks.
He and backfield mate Fitzgerald Toussaint rank No. 11 and 12 in rushing average in the Big Ten and have more rushing touchdowns than any QB-RB duo in the conference.
If Gardner and Michigan can use the zone read to open up opposing defenses, it will allow for more favorable passing situations.
Despite the poor play, UM is still undefeated and can still win the Big Ten.
Luckily, the Wolverines won't face their toughest conference opponents—Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska—until November.
With a full month to steadily improve, Michigan still has plenty of hope left for the season.
However, if the Wolverines—and specifically Gardner—can't fix their ball security issues, they will quickly be dropped from the conference title picture.
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