By LARRY LAGE
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner can turn designed plays into unplanned, virtuoso performances. He’s an improviser who can keep everyone guessing — including his coaches.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines are counting on that helping them beat No. 14 Notre Dame at the Big House on Saturday, where the storied programs will play for the last time for a long while.
When Gardner scrambles to extend a passing play or dodges defenders as he runs downfield, Michigan coach Brady Hoke acknowledged he crosses his fingers while offensive coordinator Al Borges said he holds his breath.
“It’s like watching a guy shoot a 3-point shot sometimes because it looks ill-advised, ‘No! Oh, good shot,’” Borges said. “If he uses good judgment, which he usually does scrambling, he’s a problem for the defense because there’s some stuff you simply don’t draw up on that board to account for. You got to cover him and cover the receivers, that’s not easy to do.”
Hoke and Borges insist they don’t want to stunt Gardner’s talent by telling him to simply throw the ball away or to avoid becoming a ball carrier when there’s an opening for him to run for a first down or more.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Gardner has proven — in relief of a banged-up Denard Robinson last year and a season-opening rout over Central Michigan — that he is just as capable of making plays with his right arm as he is with his legs.
“He reminds me of Randall Cunningham back there,” said Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly, referring to the former NFL quarterback. “He can throw it, he’s tall, he’s athletic, runs the ball very well.”
In the first half alone of last week’s 59-9 win against an overmatched Mid-American Conference team, Gardner zigzagged around the Chippewas on a 22-yard touchdown on a play that was intended to include a pass. He also threw a 16-yard TD and scored on a 4-yard run. Gardner finished 10 of 15 for 162 yards with two interceptions to go along with his three TDs.
“The two things I didn’t do well was throw the two interceptions,” he said. “But besides that I feel like I was pretty efficient in getting us in the right plays, making the throws when they were there and making opportunities for myself when things broke down. I just have to take the turnovers away. I feel like those were rushed throws.
“This first game was a good opportunity to knock the rust off because I’m pretty sure everyone knows the test that we have next weekend. We’ll be ready.”
Gardner was ready when it was time for him to move from wide receiver back to quarterback, his natural position, after an elbow injury knocked Robinson off the field last season.
He flourished in his first three starts under center in wins over Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa before getting shut down in a setback at Ohio State and slowed down by South Carolina in a loss at the Outback Bowl.
If Gardner can lead the Wolverines to a victory over Notre Dame, it would be his top accomplishment as a college QB and it sounds as if he can’t wait for what he called a big game on the biggest stage in college football.
“It’s what every quarterback dreams of,” he said.