Michigan vs. Michigan State: Can Devin Gardner Avoid Disaster vs. Spartans DBs?
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A timely pass deflection or interception could be the deciding factor during Saturday's Michigan vs. Michigan State contest.
Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, firmly set in his first year as starter, will face the best secondary of his young collegiate career when throwing against a group of exemplary Spartans defensive backs.
Simple question: Who has better day, Gardner or MSU DBs?
Having suffered through a turnover-prone spree earlier this season, the 6'4", 210-pound redshirt junior must now find a way to push those errors into the far reaches of his memory. There won't be much wiggle room for Gardner, who's passed for 1,779 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, helping Michigan to a 6-1 (2-1) record.
Saturday's duel between No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0) is important for both sides. A Legends Division title could be decided and Paul Bunyan may head back to the banks of the Red Cedar.
However, it's also a monumental test for Gardner in terms of confidence building and paving the way for a smooth ride.
He'll have his work cut out for him when he's forced to best safeties Kurtis Drummond and Isaiah Lewis—not to mention corners Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard, who is arguably one of the top five draft-eligible cover men in the game.
That amounts to a no-fly zone.
"(Secondary) coach (Harlon) Barnett and (defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi has those guys playing at a high level and with confidence," said former Spartans All-Big Ten corner Amp Campbell, who's in the midst of his first year as cornerbacks coach at Kent State.
"They're in the right position for success and playing with swagger."
Michigan State's pass defense is No. 1 in the Big Ten, allowing just 160.6 yards per game. That's nearly 30 yards better than Iowa, which is No. 2. The Spartans have nine picks on the season and have allowed six passing touchdowns in the red zone.
Put that with the nation's top rushing defense and that could make for a rough afternoon in East Lansing.
"(MSU's) front seven can get at the quarterback," said Campbell, who feels that the secondaries on both sides will dictate the pace this weekend. "They just have to let the guys in the back make plays."
Campbell doesn't hide his allegiance. To this day, he remains in contact with coach Mark Dantonio and other staffers via text messages. He's proud of his former program. He bleeds green and has a strong, competitive dislike for the Wolverines.
So, needless to say, he wants the Spartans to get their fifth win in six tries.
However, being a coach and former pro corner allows him to take an honest look at Michigan's talent. According to Campbell, Gardner is gifted and can have success against the Spartans' coverage.
He just has to utilize his go-to receiver.
"I think (Jeremy) Gallon is a really, really good receiver," said Campbell, who was quick to mention the senior's 369-yard extravaganza against Indiana. "I think he's a guy that can run the deep ball. He has some shiftiness where he can create plays. And I feel like he's a heck of a football player.
The big thing to me, he can create separation between himself and defensive backs. He's a guy that you have to pay close attention to and know where's he at at all times. Especially for being a little guy. He's like, what, 5'8"?! He's very shifty and can run. He's a game-breaker. They're going to try to get the ball to him...have to know where he's at at all times."
Remaining calm, in charge and focused should pay dividends for Gardner, who's yet to start in the Backyard Brawl.
For the moment, he's shed the turnovers, throwing just two in his past three games. He went interception-less in two of those games, which both happened to be lopsided affairs in his team's favor.
Gardner threw for a Michigan-record 504 yards in his 63-47, video-game-like disposal of Indiana and completed 13 of 17 attempts in a 42-13 bouncing of Minnesota.
He's a good quarterback who had to straighten out a few issues. The Spartans can't afford to take him lightly. Conversely, Gardner can't attempt to play beyond his abilities and force passes through the sticky fingers of the opposition.
That'd be a huge mistake.
MSU's Connor Cook Faces Challenges Too
Campbell believes it'll be an uphill climb for both quarterbacks. Michigan State's Connor Cook, a sophomore and first-year starter, also faces a sturdy ensemble of interceptors and play-disrupting antagonists.
Blake Countess is among the national leaders with four interceptions. Raymon Taylor is among Big Ten leaders with an average of 1.29 deflections per game.
How many interceptions will be thrown Saturday?
Courtney Avery and Jarrod Wilson anchor the safety positions, but defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and secondary coach Curt Mallory also have Dymonte Thomas, a freshman wrecking ball who can ring a few bells and prompt receivers to think thrice about being fancy up the middle.
"It’ll probably come down to that, whose secondary played well," Campbell said. "I think they're both pretty good. I think right now, it's about which one plays better and who can create turnovers."
Michigan State's offense has been anything but triumphant this season. Poor catching has plagued receivers.
Campbell is aware of those factors, but he's seen improvement along the way. Cook was spectacular this past Saturday against Illinois, completing 15 of 16 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the 42-3 win.
"I think the most important thing is to recognize that (the Wolverines) have some good players," Campbell said. "They know it’s Michigan State week. I’m pretty sure on their side that they’re talking in essence of how these guys (the Spartans) haven't scored a lot of points. Their receivers are this, they’re that.
At the same time, at the end of the day, at any given moment on the football field, they’re both going to have to perform at a high level Saturday to have success."
Quotes from Amp Campbell were obtained firsthand by Adam Biggers during a phone interview on Oct. 29, 2013.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.
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