November 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Devin Gardner's emergence keeps Michigan in Big Ten hunt

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (12) beats Northwestern defensive back Ibraheim Campbell (24) to the pilon for a first-half touchdown Saturday in Ann Arbor. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — For Michigan, it's never over until the last pass is thrown, and tipped, and cradled, and caught. For Devin Gardner, same thing — it's not over even when others think it is.

Nothing is over for the Wolverines, and it's just getting started for Gardner. How many times can a game, or a season, or a young career twist? Gardner was a receiver a couple of weeks ago, hoping to be a quarterback again. Now he's directing a team contending for the Big Ten title.

In a stadium becoming renowned for last-minute comebacks, it was Gardner's turn to save Michigan, as it stunned relentlessly feisty Northwestern 38-31 Saturday. His 53-yard heave to Roy Roundtree with eight seconds left set up the tying field goal, and Gardner scored the overtime winner on a 1-yard dash around right end.

Nebraska maintained control of the Legends Division by rallying to beat Penn State 32-23, and is on track for the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin. Michigan (7-3) edged ahead of Northwestern (7-3) and closes with Iowa at home and Ohio State on the road. It needs two victories to stay in it, not an easy task. But after this crazy sleight of hand, and with Gardner's stirring arrival, who knows.

Gardner is a different quarterback than Denard Robinson, who's still dealing with an injured elbow. But he's similar in this regard — when something needs to happen, he can make it happen in a flash. He does it with a smooth, steady cool that looks quite natural, and suddenly, Michigan's quarterback situation is in very good hands, for now and the future.

"This is Denard's team and it's always going to be Denard's team until he's gone," Gardner said after completing 16 of 29 passes for 286 yards and accounting for four touchdowns. "He's done way too much for two games to change that."

Excellent answer from the junior, deferring to the departing senior. Brady Hoke remains coy about Robinson's recovery, but the question becomes less relevant as Gardner becomes more comfortable. Robinson didn't do much in warm-ups, but was in uniform on the sideline and was the first to greet Gardner when he came off the field.

Stepping in, stepping up

I still think Michigan will need the fleet-footed Robinson at some point, perhaps to throw a wrinkle at Ohio State. But the strange (and unfortunate) fact is, Robinson might have played his final game at home. No one is discarding someone who has run for so many tough yards and won so many tight games, but a less-than-healthy Robinson isn't a better option than Gardner now.

I asked Hoke if Robinson could have played if needed Saturday.

"Maybe," he said. "He was dressed, right?"

I suppose Robinson's status is too uncertain to say anything definitive. On top of that, Gardner has played well enough to render the debate moot.

Before this season, he'd thrown 33 passes in relief. In two games as the starter, he's a combined 28-for-47 for 520 yards, with four touchdown passes and two interceptions. He possesses a terrific arm and also has three TD runs. And here's the biggest key: He has avoided the turnovers that sometimes plagued Robinson.

"Devin did a tremendous job managing everything, and then his athleticism obviously helped on some of the first downs," Hoke said. "He made some good decisions."

That's why the Wolverines were 7-for-10 on third-down conversions, and each was crucial. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter was equally clutch running the option, and the Wildcats shredded Michigan's defense until the end. On the final two plays, linebacker Kenny Demens busted through for tackles, the last on fourth-and-2 in overtime.

Under Hoke, Michigan's home-field resilience has been remarkable -- 13-0 in Michigan Stadium the past two years. This finish was as incomprehensible as any, as the Wolverines took over at their own 38 with 18 seconds left. Gardner's first pass went high and deep to Roundtree, who tipped it and grabbed it at the 9.

Waiting in the wings

How they got there is almost as amazing as how Gardner got here. Coming out of Inkster as a highly touted quarterback, he was stuck behind Robinson. He wanted to contribute so he offered to switch to receiver, but he never believed his quarterbacking days were over.

"I knew my time would come eventually, whether this year or next year," Gardner said. "It just happened to come a little earlier than expected. It's not like, aaahhh, an in-your-face type thing. You guys saw what I'd done in previous years and I hadn't proven I was that quarterback I felt I was, and that my teammates knew I was. So I can't judge you guys for not knowing."

Gardner punctuates most of his answers with a grin, part of a bubbly personality that once might have been construed as immaturity. If so, he's growing up quickly now.

Asked how comfortable Gardner seemed in the huddle, tackle Taylor Lewan chuckled.

"I don't think Devin can get any more comfortable than he already is," Lewan said. "He's done a great job. He keeps it light."

Hoke has said the plan all along was to have Gardner compete for the quarterback job next season. But if not for Robinson's injury, Gardner would still be at receiver, and he said playing the position actually helped his grasp at quarterback.

He threw two bad passes Saturday — one was intercepted and another was nearly intercepted in overtime. He ran for 47 yards, and also executed a perfect jump pass to Devin Funchess for an 8-yard touchdown that gave Michigan a brief 28-24 lead.

One of his best decisions came earlier, and it was a highly athletic incompletion. Pinned at his 9, Gardner barely eluded a defender in the end zone and threw the ball away just in time to avoid a disastrous safety.

"Watching a lot of football last year and seeing guys like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, (you see) how calm they are, how even and unshaken they are," Gardner said. "So when you make mistakes, you have to stay level."

Gardner hasn't made many mistakes, and the Wolverines are making the most of their chances. The Big Ten odds still aren't in their favor, but as we've seen, nothing is over yet.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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