Watching Gardner with One Eye on Robinson

By Kyle Rowland on November 21, 2012 at 10:00a

Devin Gardner was a wide receiver the last week of October. Zach Boren was a fullback the first week of October. As Michigan and Ohio State get geared up for their titanic clash in the final week of November, Gardner and Boren will be focal points. 

Devin Gardner has rejuvenated the Michigan offense.

But they won’t be at the positions Michigan and Ohio State’s media guides list them at. Gardner is Michigan’s quarterback, a newfound beacon of light during Denard Robinson’s struggles, while Boren is a linebacker, like his Michigan-playing father, having lifted the Silver Bullets up from the depths.

Since relieving the injured and sometimes erratic Robinson the first week of November, Gardner has been nothing short of sensational. The past two weeks he has been named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the week.

In three starts, Gardner has completed more than 65 percent of his pass attempts for 834 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also run for 105 yards and seven touchdowns. Gardner is averaging nearly four yards per carry.

“I think he’s a well-coached quarterback,” Ohio State senior safety Orhian Johnson said. “Those guys are putting him in some great situations up there. He has some guys that are making plays for him, and the offensive line seems to believe in him and is protecting him pretty well.”

Gardner’s performance last week was historic. He became the first quarterback in 12 years to throw for three touchdowns and run for three touchdowns in a game.

Despite Gardner’s recent success and Robinson’s lingering elbow injury, Robinson is listed as the starter for high noon Saturday. But that doesn’t mean Robinson will be featured exclusively at quarterback. 

“You just don’t know what to plan for,” Buckeye senior linebacker Zach Boren said. “You don’t know if you’re going to show up on Saturday and Denard’s going to be the starting quarterback and Devin’s going to be at wide receiver or Devin’s going to be the quarterback and Denard’s going to be at tailback. You don’t know, and that’s the hard thing about scheming for them.”

In Saturday’s 42-17 thrashing of Iowa, Robinson finished the game with 122 total yards – 98 rushing and 24 receiving. His two receptions were the first two of his career, and they came on Senior Day in Michigan Stadium. 

Robinson did take snaps at quarterback, though he never threw a pass. Quarterback, running back and slot receiver were each areas Robinson dabbled in during last week’s game. He was used as a weapon and a decoy.

“When Denard had the ball, of course he made big plays,” Gardner said. “But when he didn’t have the ball, we had our even bigger plays. The attention that he gets is amazing.”

With starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint out, Robinson’s Velcro effect could be even stronger.

“It definitely makes it a little bit harder to prepare, but you don’t think about it too much,” Ohio State senior defensive lineman Garrett Goebel said. “You prepare for everything and react to what happens.”

In last season’s game versus Ohio State, Michigan’s first win over the Buckeyes in seven tries, Toussaint ran for 120 yards. He gained over 1,000 yards last season, but 2012 was doomed before it even began.

Toussaint was charged with drunken driving during the summer and was suspended for Michigan’s 41-14 loss to Alabama in Arlington, Texas. In his place, Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith combined for 42 yards on 19 carries. Toussaint has played in 10 games and gained just over 500 yards. 

Even when he's not at QB, Robinson remains a weapon.

Rawls is listed as the starting running back on this week’s depth chart.

The absence of a 1,000-yard rusher would cause most offensive coordinators to shutter, but Al Borges, Michigan’s play-caller, has something in his back pocket.

It’s called “Denard in the backfield” and "Two quarterbacks in the backfield,” according to Borges.

“He’s one of the finest athletes in America, so you’d better know where he's at every snap,” said Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who developed a friendship with Robinson while recruiting him. “I think he'll probably be able to throw that ball well enough. I know they have something waiting, so we have to be ready for it.”

This isn’t the first time the well-traveled Borges has featured two dynamic runners in the backfield. During a stint as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, Borges had the luxury of interchanging Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. That duo helped lead the Tigers to a perfect 13-0 season.

“That’s fun,” Borges said. “My creative juices are flowing all the time. Depending on the game, I'm considered creative or idiotic.

“That's what makes this game fun for coordinators. There are so many things you can do with 11 guys. It’s like no other game.”

But Borges still doesn’t feel like discussing any wrinkles Michigan might have in the backfield or what personnel will line up with Robinson or Gardner at quarterback. For Borges, that would be akin to telling the Russian media state secrets.

“As far as that package goes, that’s game-plan stuff. I’m not addressing it,” Borges said.

The unique offensive set was used for 15 snaps last week. Michigan scored touchdowns on its first six possessions. The Wolverines went a two-week stretch in October scoring 21 total points and being generally ineffective on offense. The second game during that stint came when Robinson suffered his elbow injury at Nebraska.

But when Gardner moved from receiver to behind center the next weekend, Michigan’s offensive production went to heights not seen since the 2011 season.

“I think Al does a tremendous job of taking personnel and the playmakers that you have on the team and having the ability to get them the ball and let their God-given ability take over," Hoke said.

He’ll have his work cut out for him against the Buckeyes. The Silver Bullets field the 17th-best rush defense in the country, allowing 117 yards rushing all season and just 12 touchdowns.

Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez is the only true dual-threat signal-caller Ohio State has faced this season. Under a nighttime sky in Ohio Stadium, Martinez had his worst game the season, throwing three interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and only rushing for 40 yards on 18 carries.

“The good thing is that we know that they’re going to run or pass the ball,” Johnson said. “Either way it goes, the ball is going to have to be declared some way, so we just have to go out there and make sure once it’s declared, we’re in our right spots and go out there and make plays.”

Said Borges: “This game is won or lost by the players. Our job is to put them in the best position to succeed, knowing sometimes it's not going to work. They’re all like that, but this Ohio State game in particular is all about the players rising to the occasion and overcoming adversity.”

Players like Devin Gardner and Zach Boren.


Comments Show All Comments

Frankly Scarlet's picture

Two things frighten me:
- Denard in the open field
- Our DB's not being as "physical to the ball" as M*ch*gan's WRs on deep passes
If the Silver Bullets can manage those two areas well, everything will be fine. If not, TTUN will score 40+ points on us.

"Buclkle your chinstrap, we're gonna grind meat!" - Woody Hayes  

OldColumbusTown's picture

The possibility of both in the backfield does cause some concern. The threat of Denard passing, more than anything, is what will/could freeze the Ohio State defense at times.

I'm actually not quite as impressed by Gardner yet compared to most others, I guess. He's gotten better each game, but he's also faced some pretty bad defenses. Iowa is just terrible, and could get zero contain on the edges in the red zone.

Against both Minnesota and Northwestern, he seemed to throw a bunch of jump balls, and tends to move around a lot in the pocket, even when not really necessary. We saw how that works out for the opposition last week when Simon introduced himself to Phillips, several times.

This is not to say I'm writing off Gardner as a good QB, or a dangerous player on Saturday, because he definitely is. I just think he may struggle a bit more than TTUN has seen to this point, as he will finally face a pass rush and some talented CB's.

Also, I have a feeling RDS will want to say hello to Gardner and Denard... over and over again!

nickma71's picture

Yes, but we will score a lot of points in the burned down wreckage.

buckeyedude's picture

I forgot all about that. It seems so long ago. Could you find that again? I'd really like to watch it, for old time's sake. I kinda miss RichRod.
But with Urban Meyer, I don't things are going to be much easier for the Crapperines. 



input4u's picture

I think if Simon, Boren, Shaier and company can get a hard hit on Gardner early in the game that will be huge.  Get in his head that this not going to come as easy as the last few games... Don't let him gain confidnece and set the tone early.... If that happens we will celebrate a thrashing of TSUN this year....

KillerNut's picture

Personal opinion, that mental first hit stuff is overblown

BrewstersMillions's picture

Exactly. The first hit doesn't do it for me either if nothing follows it. Consistent contact send the message that "You aren't safe today" and that works wonders on a QB. That's the key. Hit him early, sure, but hit them often too.

blueinsconsin's picture

Great post and will be a great game on Saturday.  @FranklyScarlet I don't think you have to worry too much about Michigan's WRs being more physical, but watch the double moves.  Gardner's decision making and accuracy on the outside passes have been good so far, but like Oldcolumbustown said, he hasn't faced that great of defenses yet.  This will be a big test for him.  Either way, I think this will be a one point game, 31-30 or something like that.  

Not here to troll...Go Blue

buckeyedude's picture

I think it's going to be a blowout. Buckeye's huge. Just a gut feeling. This Buckeye team has been improving game to game. Even though the offense didn't perform well last weekend, they know it, and will make adjustments.



avail31678's picture

“The good thing is that we know that they’re going to run or pass the ball,” Johnson said.
Thanks, Ohrian!  ;-)

Alhan's picture

What, no armpunts?

"Nom nom nom" - Brady Hoke

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

I think a few big hits on Denard and he will be out of the equation!  He was a fairly inaccurate passer to begin with and the elbow injury is not helping!  I don't even think of him passing when he has the ball and just assume he is going to run and crush him accordingly!  Iowa got into trouble always thinking he could pass so they didn't go after him aggressively.  I don't think we make that same mistake until he does toss a pass! 

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

BlueBayou's picture

I was at the game versus Iowa and I disagree that they made the mistake thinking Denard could pass.  Maybe the first few plays Denard was in, but after that, when he was on the field, they keyed on him every play and came full force on his movement, overcommitting at times.  This is what opened up the misdirection plays that hit them pretty big when Michigan used him as a decoy.  Also, late in the game, Michigan ran a QB draw with Robinson that didn't really work because the Iowa defense only had Denard and Run on their minds.  They didn't buy that he was going to pass the ball at all.
From watching the game, my friend and I got to the point that we started hoping that Denard didn't throw the ball in that game because we thought it would be better if tOSU didn't know if he could.  Obviously the hope here is that the tOSU defense believes he can't when in fact he can.  That should be good for at least one big play if executed properly.  Also, if he can throw, that makes the double QB formation with Robinson and Gardner tougher to contain because that ball can come out on a pass from both positions.  They will need to balance in enough misdirection and pass plays to keep the defense properly constrained from selling out on just Denard.
Another observation we made at the game was that using Denard at running back seemed to expose him to bigger hits than when he ran from the QB position.  I'm not sure why, but theorize that when he runs from the QB position, Michigan is afforded an extra blocker for him.  He normaly is adept at avoiding the big hit, but Iowa got some good hits on him that I hadn't seen him really take before.  It will be key that he can hold up to the hits in this game.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

To me it appeared that they were not committed to the fact that he was always going to run and they were hesitant in going after him.... either that or their defense just completely sucks!  Obviously you follow them a wee bit closer than I do so I will cede to your observation.  Denard should probably keep his eyes very wide open Saturday for Simon, Noah Spence, Shaizer, and Big Hank if he is going to play running back!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

toledobuckeyefanjim's picture

OSU must win the battles on the lines, offense and defense. The DL has to sack Gardner or at least hit him hard enough to scare the crap out of him, knowing whatever he does he will be punished. And the secondary must not give away easy passes or take stupid penalties.
I'll also be rooting for Nebraska to beat Iowa on Friday afternoon, just so the scUM won't be playing for the Legends title.

avail31678's picture

Agreed - I really want to win, and win big of course, but just in case that doesn't happen, I do NOT want them in the BIG Championship game. 

BuckeyeVet's picture

@Toledo - How about rooting for Iowa to win, so that M*chigan gets their hopes up again - so that we can dash them a little harder. (But I'll bet Nebraska wins).

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."          - Groucho Marx

"The recipient of Oyster's ONLY down vote".

beserkr29's picture

Gardner has thrown at least one interception in each of the games he's started.  That's cause for concern when you are turning the ball over against the likes of Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa.  None of those teams (no offense, Pat) are rife with talent on the defensive side of the ball and two of them are downright atrocious.  I think that Ohio State is finally getting consistent pressure from the front 4 against even good opposing offensive lines, which should make Gardner have to really get up to speed in the passing game.  I don't think that, barring a total letdown by the defense as a whole, Gardner and co. will have enough ttime to really operate the way Borges would like.  I don't believe it will be a complete blowout, but I don't think that Ohio State will be completely inept on dfense like the last 3 teams that Hoke's team has faced.  Also, Braxton won't have two bad games in a row. 

sir rickithda3rd's picture

i really hope we win this game and i think we will. this new offense does scare me, however, i think we have better off/ def personnel. hopefully we see this team put it all together for the game!

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

MediBuck's picture

I don't think that the OSU coaches are the only ones with a dilemma on their hands-- I have a hard time believing that Borges won't want to start Denard at QB this game considering what an outing he had in the Game last year. I guess he'll have to make the decision between whether he thinks he can replicate that success this time or take a risk with this new offensive formation.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

Doc's picture

I don't see Detard playing much QB. I see Gardner playing QB and Detard being everywhere else.  This could really be a mismatch for the defense.  Letting him get out into the open field will be lights out for us.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

osubuckeye4life's picture

The quarterback must go down and he must go down HARD! Repeatedly! 
I want Big John Simon and the rest of the wrecking crew harrassing Detard and Garner all day long! Relentless!!! Take no prisoners!!! 60 minutes of punishment!!!!!!!!! NO MERCY!!!!!!!!
Ryan DAMN! Shazier tboning Detard and Gardner!
Play with your hair on fire guys!!!!!!!!! 

HolyBuckeye92's picture

Getting my HS up.

"I call them That School Up North because I hate them."-Woody Hayes