Ann Arbor — As warm-ups go, this was as ideal as it gets, and not just because of the bloated score. There were more than enough stirring plays to get heads spinning, and just enough blips to keep feet grounded.
This is how good raw talent can look, at least when contrasted against an outmanned opponent. Devin Gardner opened his first full season as Michigan’s starting quarterback and showed all facets of his multi-dimensional game in a 59-9 thumping of Central Michigan Saturday. It was brutal and mostly efficient, and we’ll find out soon how much it actually means.
If the Wolverines are to hit lofty expectations this season, they’ll be required to grow up quickly, with Notre Dame coming to town. Brady Hoke and his staff threw all sorts of precocious young players on the field, fed them playing time and hoped for sprouting. Against the Chippewas, it was evident. Against the Irish, it will have to be refined.
This wasn’t about badly beating a Mid-American Conference opponent. It was about testing the worthiness and sturdiness of unproven players, with three new starters on the offensive line and seven new starters on defense. Make no mistake, teams can win with youth, if talented enough. Michigan played 10 true freshmen and 14 more redshirt freshmen from their touted classes, and while inexperience gets them out of position at times, they have the quickness to make up ground.
“Obviously it’s a talented group, but at the same time, there’s a discipline you need to play with, and that’s something they’ll learn,” Hoke said. “We took 68 guys to the hotel last night, and 36 were first or second-year players. That’s a lot of baby-sitting, and a lot of teaching going on.”
Hoke isn’t the only one in charge of baby-sitting. Senior linebacker Cam Gordon had two sacks and senior receiver Jeremy Gallon had four catches and a touchdown. Yes, I understand the Wolverines are Gallons and Gallons better than the Chippewas, but this was a much needed start.
Gardner getting ready
Gardner threw an incompletion and interception on his first two passes, and later tossed another interception. But he completed 10 of 15 for 162 yards, and ran for 52 yards and two touchdowns, including a smooth, loping 22-yard scramble. While the new linemen get settled, and untested running backs besides Fitz Toussaint find their place, Gardner will have to do more, without trying to do too much.
He doesn’t run as fast as Denard Robinson but throws significantly better. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out when to do which.
“This was an opportunity to knock the rust off, because I’m pretty sure everybody knows the test we have next week, and we’ll be ready,” Gardner said.
“I just like to stay calm when I’m running around. My face is pretty straight, I’m not really chaotic, my head’s not spinning. And I feel like my calmness helps my teammates to be calm. When they see me running around, they’re like, is he scrambling or is he not? It’s probably refreshing for them.”
In a way, it probably is. When Robinson ran, he was gone, for better or worse. When Gardner contemplates running, he’s more calculated. He might go sideline to sideline, might take off, might circle back, might flip a short pass.
Last year, Robinson tried to do too much against Notre Dame and threw four interceptions in a 13-6 loss. Gardner has those tendencies but seems more controlled, and his potential is limitless. Even though this was only his sixth college start, he ran the full offense, including no-huddle out of the shotgun before the Wolverines went to a traditional look.
Giving the Irish something to think about, or just using Gardner’s full arsenal?
“As long as he does a good job of protecting himself, we’ll let him do what he does well,” Hoke said. “Sometimes guys who have that kind of ability, it’s a blessing and a curse. He can make a lot of plays, as long as he keeps learning to make decisions.”
Freshmen make plays
Learning on the fly, so to speak. True for Gardner, true for others. Two of Michigan’s top tacklers were true freshmen — cornerback Channing Stribling and linebacker Ben Gedeon. It helped that Central Michigan’s star back, Zurlon Tipton, left with an ankle injury, but he didn’t find any room in his brief appearance.
Michigan battered starting quarterback Cody Kater and his replacement, Alex Niznak, collecting four sacks. That might be the most telling number of the day, because the Wolverines had a meager 22 sacks all last season.
Some of the freshmen, such as top running back Derrick Green and quarterback Shane Morris, didn’t enter until the score was out of hand, but Green has a chance to make an immediate impact. Toussaint ran hard in his return from a leg injury, but Green actually outrushed him (58-57).
For Michigan to be willing to test so many young guys, there’s a hunger for immediate impact.
“We talked in camp about pressure — how you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, you can’t smell it,” Gardner said. “It’s not tangible, so it really doesn’t exist. I feel like the freshmen took that on their backs and ran with it. They were really confident. It was just amazing to see guys like your little brothers get opportunities so early.”
They got their throats dry and their feet wet, just in time for a night-time showdown against Notre Dame. There’s a perception Michigan might be a year away from true title contention, based on its youth. If this game counts as a legitimate early sign, I’d say there’s no reason to wait.