For the past few seasons Michigan relied heavily on quarterback Denard Robinson to pick up the yardage on the ground. The result? He finally suffered a hit hard enough to sideline him and the Wolverines needed to lean on back ups.
“I don’t want him carrying the ball 25 times. Nobody does,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “Because he isn’t going to make it. Denard didn’t make it. We should have learned something from that situation. It’s hard for a quarterback to carry the ball that many times and stay in one piece.”
So far Gardner has stayed in one piece, but admittedly, he has felt pretty sore after games.
He has been doing his best to avoid unnecessary hits, but each hit he does take brings him, and the Wolverines, closer to the possibility of Shane Morris seeing the field.
Against Penn State, Gardner rushed the ball 24 times for 121 yards (five yards per carry). Those numbers are very impressive, however, he was the only player that found yardage on the ground for Michigan. Fitzgerald Toussaint averaged one yard per carry, and Derrick Green was only given three rushes total.
“I pretty much knew what had to happen -- we weren’t getting many yards on first downs, we weren’t running the ball well,” Gardner said. “If they need me to run, that’s fine, I’ll do it. And if we don’t, like we did a few weeks ago, then I won’t.”
The 149 rushing yards isn’t a good sign. It’s quite a bit below Michigan’s season average of 173.2 yards per game, which puts the Wolverines No. 9 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin, which leads the conference, averages 298.2 yards per game on the ground.
The 149 yards didn't help the Wolverines find a victory against Penn State, and the main problem coming out of the run game is that Gardner had to find that yardage and take those hits. He accounted for 81 percent of Michigan’s rushing yardage against Penn State. Last season, Robinson had accounted for 58 percent of the Wolverines’ rushing attack before getting hurt.
During his junior season, Robinson only needed to make up 41 percent of Michigan’s run game. That year he led the Wolverines in rushing yards, but Toussaint also accounted for 36 percent of the yardage. Michigan still doesn't necessarily want a quarterback to be its team's leading rusher, but finding something more balanced like 2011 would be beneficial for the Wolverines.
Michigan had done relatively well protecting Gardner before the Penn State game, and he had only averaged 63.6 rushing yards per game before last weekend. But when Michigan has needed yards on the ground this season, it has been Gardner who has found them.
“I don’t like it, but you do what you have to do to win the game -- End of discussion,” Borges said. “If no one’s getting any yards, you have a problem. I would prefer [that be] the tailback. But if the quarterback is the guy that beats you -- I don’t particularly like it -- but we’ll do what we have to do to win the football game.”
Indiana will offer the Wolverines a chance to get on track with its run game. The Hoosiers are the Big Ten’s worst rushing defense, having given up 216.5 yards per game this season.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he’s not opposed to trying out new faces in the run game, so Green, De'Veon Smith or Thomas Rawls could see some field time this weekend, especially if the Wolverines are more focused on taking the rushing stress of Gardner.
So far, he has been a good sport about it. The redshirt junior is willing to do whatever it takes to try and help his team win, even if that means taking extra hits and being sore the next day.
“I feel like if you’re not beat up after the game,” Gardner said, “you probably didn’t play that hard.”
But if Michigan allows Gardner to get too beat up, then it's simply going to be a team that's much easier to beat.