IOWA CITY, Ia. — Michigan’s Devin Gardner is the Big Ten Conference’s leading passer. But it’s his feet, not his arm, that could pose the ultimate challenge to Iowa’s defense Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Gardner was at his best in last week’s triple-overtime thriller at Northwestern, freelancing his way through the Wildcats at crunch time for Michigan’s first Big Ten road victory.
“He’s a mobile kind of quarterback,” Hawkeyes linebacker James Morris said. “He’s a different kind of mobile than some of the other quarterbacks we’ve played. More of his success is when he does things on his own as opposed to designated runs.”
Gardner averages 268.3 passing yards per game against Big Ten foes this season. His rushing numbers — 46.1 yards per game for the season — are not impressive. That is due, in part, to a Michigan offensive line that has allowed 31 sacks. In the last three games, Michigan State and Nebraska recorded seven sacks each, and Northwestern five. Gardner has gained 761 yards. And lost three football fields.
So Gardner has been running for his life. But running quarterbacks traditionally have created fits for Iowa defenses, whether it be ghosts of the past such as Antwaan Randle-El of Indiana and Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State or this season’s fleet-footed quartet of Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Northwestern’s Kain Colter and Gardner.
The Hawkeyes lost to Lynch and Miller this season. Miller got away from Iowa defenders on several crucial third-and-long situations in Columbus, and finished with 102 rushing yards. The Hawkeyes did a good job containing Colter in an overtime victory this year in Kinnick, but he got them last year in Evanston. So did Gardner, in a one-sided 42-17 victory last season in Ann Arbor.
“He had 350 yards of offense against us last year,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “We never even put up a fight. I can’t remember how many points they did score. I’m trying to forget that. But it could have been a lot worse.”
Gardner accounted for six touchdowns — three passing, three running — in Iowa’s fifth straight defeat. So when the
6-foot-4 junior sees those Tiger Hawk helmets as he breaks the huddle Saturday, his confidence should be brimming.
Iowa is ninth nationally in total defense. The Hawkeyes have allowed four rushing touchdowns and nine red-zone touchdowns, which ties for the fewest nationally in both categories. The Hawkeyes have held nine of 10 opponents to less than their rushing average.
Those numbers will mean little if Gardner gets loose. Iowa stops teams defensively with solid play, not speed. Contain, contain, contain. That will be Saturday’s buzzword. That and a blitz or two … or 10.
“The issue for us is we’re not a big blitz team,” Ferentz said. “Our percentages are probably way lower than most people. Typically for us to get there we’ve got to get there with our front four. That is an area we need to improve upon. It’s going to be a challenge. But we certainly can’t let him get comfortable back there, and we can’t let him get outside, either. He did that a few times last year and we paid for it, both run and pass. He’s a very talented guy and can hurt you a couple different ways.”
Some pressure from the front four will be key. So will be the ability of defensive ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy to contain and not let Gardner turn the corner.
“We’ll be practicing scramble drills all week in practice,” Ott said.
In scramble drills, the scout team has someone run around. The defensive ends must contain him.
Don’t look for Iowa to put a spy on Gardner, a guy with the singular responsibility of keeping the Michigan quarterback on his radar.
“It worked pretty good when we had Bob Sanders against Randle-El,” Ferentz said. “The trouble is finding that guy who can really do it.”
Ferentz said his team didn’t use a spy on Colter. Didn’t for Miller, either.
“How do you match up with that guy?” Ferentz said. “That’s the problem.”
But getting pressure on Gardner is mandatory, is some way, shape or form.
“We’ve seen a lot of these guys, who can extend plays with their feet,” safety Tanner Miller said. “But (Gardner’s) one of the better pocket passers that we’ll see as well. We’ve got to be ready for both aspects.”
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeyes football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
CAN GARDNER DO IT AGAIN? HOW THIS YEAR COMPARES …
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner’s statistics last season against Iowa and his numbers through six Big Ten Conference games this year:
|’12 vs. Iowa||2013|
|Yards per carry||4.1||1.6|
BIG TEN RANKS
The Wolverine junior is among the Big Ten leaders in passing through his team’s six Big Ten games: