MINNEAPOLIS – Devin Gardner replaced Denard Robinson in a surprise quarterback switch by Michigan right before kickoff, throwing two touchdown passes and running for another score to lead the Wolverines past Minnesota 35-13 on Saturday.
Gardner woke up the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) after they went two straight games without a touchdown, guiding scoring drives of 91, 90, 86 and 79 yards to squash the hope the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) had of an upset with Michigan's senior star on the sideline.
Robinson has been bothered by nerve damage in his right elbow, but he was expected to play. Gardner didn't let the Wolverines down, going 12 for 18 for 234 yards despite one interception to hand the Gophers their 38th loss in the last 41 games for the Little Brown Jug trophy. Minnesota hasn't beaten Michigan at home since 1977.
From poorly timed penalties to missed tackles to ineffective play calls in short-yardage and third-down situations, the Gophers had plenty to be frustrated about after taking a 7-0 lead on Philip Nelson's touchdown pass to John Rabe. Eight of Minnesota's 10 possessions went past midfield.
Their second of three sacks of Gardner gave Michigan third-and-17 at the Minnesota 45 midway through the second quarter. But Gardner slipped one defender at the end of his scramble to the right, pivoted and ran all the way back through the pocket to his left and launched a well-worth-the-effort heave to a wide-open Drew Dileo for the score.
Then when the Wolverines had the ball again, Gardner escaped a sack in his own end zone and connected with Ray Roundtree for a first down. A 2-yard run by Thomas Rawls finished off the 13-play march to make it 14-7.
Gardner took most of the snaps in practice this week while Robinson rested and healed, but coach Brady Hoke said all along the speedy senior would play despite the injury that forced him out of two of Michigan's last three games.
Russell Bellomy filled in last week, but he threw three interceptions in the loss at Nebraska. So Gardner, who'd been used at wide receiver to take advantage of his athleticism while Robinson was running the offense, was given the job on Saturday.
Gardner is the same type of dual-purpose player as Robinson, with quick feet and a knack for eluding the tackle at the last split-second, and after a slow start the junior from Detroit showed off his skills and kept Michigan's Big Ten title chase going. The Wolverines host Northwestern and Iowa before finishing at Ohio State.
Michigan's pass defense, tied with Alabama for the stingiest in the nation, pressured Nelson into a 13-for-29, 142-yard performance. The Gophers played without their best wide receiver, A.J. Barker, who sprained his ankle in last week's win over Purdue.
Even after the second-quarter lapse, Minnesota had an opportunity to make this a game again after halftime by getting the ball at the Michigan 42 after another short punt by Will Hagerup.
The Gophers had first-and-10 at the 13-yard line before stumbling around, failing to score and handing the momentum right back to the Wolverines. K.J. Maye lost 6 yards running a reverse on second-and-long. Then Minnesota called a fake field goal instead of trying a 37-yard kick by Jordan Wettstein, but the throw by holder Pete Mortell to Nelson was 12 yards short of the first down.
The Wolverines went the other way and stretched their lead to two touchdowns, when Jeremy Gallon grabbed a 10-yard throw by Gardner in the corner and got a foot down before he fell out.
Wettstein missed a 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but he was 3 for 4 last week, all on attempts of 35 yards or longer. He made two short kicks in the fourth quarter after the Gophers got inside the Michigan 5 both times but couldn't move further. The Wolverines weren't fooled by those shotgun zone-read running plays, the backbone of the Minnesota offense, and many of Nelson's throws were off the mark.
Fitz Toussaint added a 41-yard touchdown run for Michigan to really put the game out of reach down the stretch.