COMMENTARY | When Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl’s pass fell incomplete as time expired in Michigan’s week three contest with the Zips, Wolverine fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. A near nightmare had been narrowly avoided. They could put the one-game anomaly behind them and look forward to a shellacking of the lowly Connecticut Huskies the following week.
Quarterback Devin Gardner and All-American offensive lineman Taylor Lewan all but confirmed for fans that Michigan’s poor performance against Akron was a one-game aberration.
In the post-game press conference, both athletes expressed embarrassment over the team’s disappointing showing. Lewan was defiant, almost angry, proclaiming, “We will not come out like this again.”
Gardner admitted that he made a lot of bad decisions and echoed Lewan’s commitment to better play. “I probably played my worst game ever,” he said. “And it won’t happen again.”
Well, it did.
Fast forward one week, and Michigan fans found themselves in an uncomfortably familiar position after their Wolverines struggled mightily at Rentschler Field in Harford, Connecticut. Favored by more than two touchdowns, Michigan barely averted disaster, falling behind by two scores before overcoming the deficit thanks in no small part to a herculean effort on an interception by linebacker Desmond Morgan. Michigan won again, but barely, and both near losses were the result of too many mistakes by the offense, especially quarterback Devin Gardner.
This Is Nothing New
College football fans often have short memories. Each season is a rebirth where we wash away the disappointments of season’s past. So much so that we quickly forget what actually happened.
Unfortunately for Michigan fans, some things can’t be forgotten. Highly-publicized losses to inferior opponents still linger. The near misses against Akron and Connecticut serve as sobering reminders of those embarrassing times. Perhaps even more frustrating for Wolverine fans, however, are the parallels that can be drawn between Gardner’s performance and that of his predecessor, Denard Robinson.
Watching Gardner this year feels like watching Robinson game film from previous seasons more and more with each passing contest. Gardner’s interceptions, fumbles, bad passes, and poor decisions in the last two games have looked eerily similar to mistakes made in bad games by Robinson in recent years, and Michigan fans know it all too well.
They Look So Good, Then Look So Bad
In his first five games as the starting quarterback in 2010, Denard Robinson was dynamic. He led his team to victories in each, while throwing seven touchdown passes with only one interception. He also ran for eight scores and an amazing 905 yards in those games. Gardner was similarly impressive early, throwing for eleven touchdowns and running for seven more in his first five games as the starter last season. He threw five interceptions, one in each game, while going 3-2 in that stretch with the losses being solid performances against very good teams.
The magic didn’t last for Denard Robinson. He lacked the prototypical characteristics of the pocket passers that came before him at Michigan: namely, the ability to throw with accuracy and consistently hit his targets. These shortcomings began to show themselves in bigger games against better teams, especially when he struggled to find the running room he had become accustomed to. He made bad decisions that crippled the Michigan offense, and put the defense in precarious situations.
Nowhere was this more evident than against Notre Dame last season, where Robinson threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. Michigan lost the game, failing to score a touchdown, and Robinson was held under 100 yards rushing.
Coming into this season, the difference between the two quarterbacks appeared to be Gardner’s effectiveness as a passer. He was accurate. He threw deep. He made good decisions. And he scored in the red zone. It made it easy to forget to miss Denard Robinson the quarterback, as Robinson had proven himself to be consistently inconsistent as a passer, especially against better competition.
Unfortunately for Michigan fans, in his last two outings Devin Gardner has resembled the inconsistent incarnation of Denard Robinson rather than the dynamic one. He’s been rattled. He’s been inaccurate. He’s been indecisive. He’s been bad. He’s been like Denard Robinson. It led to sloppy play and too many mistakes, and it almost led to two very bad losses.
We’ve Heard it Before
Following his Notre Dame performance last year, Robinson apologized to fans. “I want to say to everyone who watches Michigan football and follows Michigan football, it won’t happen no more,” he said. His comments are remarkably similar to those made by Gardner and Lewan after the Akron game. In each case, the players vowed not to let it happen again.
Robinson actually kept his promise. He played well in his next three games, throwing only one interception in a big win against Michigan State. An injury forced him to give up the quarterback position to Gardner for the remainder of the season, but for three games Robinson lived up to his commitment to fans. The same can’t be said for Gardner. He went out and had a repeat performance against Connecticut one week after his poor play against Akron.
An Uncertain Future
Much of the national media (as well as at least one member of the local media) has taken this opportunity to denigrate the Big Ten Conference, as well as to effectively write off any chances the Wolverines have at a successful season. ESPN’s Brad Edwards dropped them from his BCS bowl predictions. I have received messages from friends as a courtesy to warn me of the impending destruction that awaits at the back end of the Michigan schedule.
Despite the gloom and doom, the Wolverines are 4-0. More importantly, the bleak outlook is based on two bad offensive efforts that were bad mostly because of correctable mistakes. It is unfair to focus on these two games without at least reminding ourselves of how good this offense looked in the previous seven.
Devin Gardner’s body of work over nine games includes more feast than it does famine. He has more often than not made the right play. He has more often than not successfully led this offense. He has more often than not won football games.
Let’s come back from that ledge and put things in perspective. Michigan is 4-0, and it has an offense led by a quarterback who has shown he can produce at a high level. It looked good against Notre Dame, and it is doubtful that anyone would argue that Akron or Connecticut are better than Notre Dame.
While the memory of past inconsistency hangs over this team like a dark cloud, we can’t know with certainty which Devin Gardner from our memories we will see in coming games. If it is the accurate, consistent, dynamic Devin Gardner that we saw against Notre Dame and at the end of last season, the Michigan offense will be just fine, even against the giants lurking on the November schedule.