Top 5 moments: Gardner steps up

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
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This week, WolverineNation will look at the five most critical moments of Michigan's 2012 football season (bowl excluded). These aren't necessarily positive or negative moments, but the five moments that most impacted this football season.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson fell innocently to the turf, tackled just one more time on a cold October night in Lincoln, Neb. Unlike so many other times in his career, though, Robinson didn’t get up.

Robinson and Michigan appeared to be driving for a score to take the lead against Nebraska in a game that would have given the Wolverines a stronghold on the Legends Division and a path to the Rose Bowl. But when Robinson went down, everything shifted for the last third of Michigan’s season.

Redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy entered the game and missed on his first 10 passes. The Wolverines lost to Nebraska and saw their hold on the division slip away.

The next week, junior Devin Gardner became the starting quarterback, and that shift was the most critical moment of this Michigan football season.

Robinson missed the next two games with an ulnar nerve injury in his right elbow. When he returned, he bounced among quarterback, running back and wide receiver, with Gardner the more full-time option at quarterback for multiple reasons.

One, Robinson was never fully healthy and struggled in warmups to put velocity on his passes. Two, Gardner -- and Michigan’s early transition from a hybrid spread to a pro-style offense -- appeared to be the better quarterback.

Gardner completed 57 of 90 passes for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions and a 177.58 passer efficiency rating over the final month of the season, almost equaling Robinson’s touchdown pass total in four fewer games.

The injury also allowed Gardner to grab a stranglehold on the starting quarterback position for next season, when Robinson will be gone, and gave Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges the opportunity to work more with the offense (and quarterback) he will have in the future instead of having to cater more toward the unique skills of Robinson.

The move also gave Gardner more confidence, as his improvement each week -- at least until the regular-season finale against Ohio State -- was massive. That can’t be understated, as he will have a full spring and offseason to work as Michigan’s starting quarterback.

The injury also led to one other question: Why wasn’t Gardner the backup all along? The coaches long expressed confidence in Bellomy and Gardner was transitioning to wide receiver, but if Gardner had been groomed to back up Robinson from the start, he would have come in against Nebraska.

And maybe Michigan would have considered pulling Robinson -- for a series or more -- during his disastrous four-interception second quarter against Notre Dame, which just missed the cut in the Top 5 moments.

These questions are unanswerable now, but Robinson’s injury ended up pushing Michigan’s future to its present about two months earlier than it anticipated.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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Saturday, 12/20
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