October 5, 2013 at 11:26 pm

John Niyo

Michigan finds game plan that works for Devin Gardner: Simplify

Ann Arbor — It wasn’t back to the drawing board, exactly.

But it was back to something more familiar, especially for the more nostalgic fans in a Homecoming crowd of 111,079 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

Something less frantic, too, as the 19th-ranked Wolverines used a bye week to simplify things on offense as they began Big Ten play with a 42-13 win over Minnesota at Michigan Stadium.

“We went back to the basics and all the fundamentals,” quarterback Devin Gardner said. “That’s what we focused on.”

That was the right thing to do — the only thing to do, really — after making life far too difficult for themselves in recent weeks. Simply put, it had to be done, based on what we saw from the Wolverines in dramatic wins against the likes of Akron and Connecticut.

Fundamentally, Minnesota isn’t a dramatic step up in terms of competition. But that hardly mattered Saturday, because this was about building confidence as much as it was building an identity,

“We want to run the ball,” coach Brady Hoke said. “And we wanted to send that message.”

And inasmuch as the two go hand-in-hand, Saturday’s message should be well-received.

If it ain't broke ...

Gardner’s performance certainly was, as he and the Wolverines played their first turnover-free game since a 58-0 rout of the Gophers in October 2011. Gardner committed a staggering 10 turnovers in his first four games, and it nearly cost his team the last two weeks against inferior opponents.

“I’m gonna call his last two games for him a fluke,” said Taylor Lewan, the Wolverines’ All-America left tackle. “You can quote me on that, because I think Devin’s a hell of a player. And if he’s put in the right position, he’ll do some good things.”

Saturday, they put him in the right position by asking him to step aside, more often than not. Gardner didn’t attempt a pass until midway through the second quarter — “The first drive I don’t even move my arm forward in a throwing motion and we score,” he laughed — and didn’t seem to mind when asked about the run-heavy game plan afterward.

“We’re gonna do what’s working, and that’s what was working at the time,” he said. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. … Today I was able to manage the game and be pretty efficient on third downs.”

Efficient is a refreshing change from Gardner, who converted 10 of 13 third downs and finished 13-of-17 passing for 235 yards and a touchdown. He was a bit off-target early but drilled one to Devin Funchess on a 46-yard post pattern late to help put the game easily out of reach. And while he flashed that scrambling ability of his, he finished with just seven carries for 17 yards and another score.

And that’s the point here: Gardner might be more comfortable doing more, but this team might better off with him doing less.

The Wolverines certainly are counting on their dynamic quarterback to win some games for them, just as he did here against Notre Dame a month ago. But if they’re counting on Gardner to do everything for this offense, more than likely they’re going to starting counting losses in conference play.

Staying grounded

All of which explains that opening drive for the Wolverines — six consecutive runs, 35 yards, and a touchdown for a 7-0 lead —after their defense forced a fumble on the third play from scrimmage.

It explains the jumbled starters on the offensive line — with Graham Glasgow replacing an overmatched Jack Miller at center and Chris Bryant stepping in at left guard — and the double-digit carries for freshman running back Derrick Green and even the decision to line Funchess up (finally) as a wide receiver.

It also explains the grin on Lewan’s face after the game as he talked about all those unbalanced formations where he lined up next to Michael Scofield at the point of attack.

“We’re gonna play Michigan football,” Lewan said, when I asked him about the “message” Hoke wanted his team to send coming out of the bye week. “Reestablish the line of scrimmage. Power run game, inside zone, downhill. Fullback, running back … ”

He could go on like that, but you get the picture. It’s the same one we’ve all been painting since Hoke took over as Michigan’s head coach a few years ago. And it’s far from a masterpiece at this point. This was Minnesota, after all, not Michigan State.

But while Saturday’s final rushing totals weren’t overly impressive — 113 yards on 35 carries — the pass protection was solid (Bryant gave up the lone sack) and the push was there, too. More important, as Hoke said after the game, “That threat was there consistently throughout the game.”

And with the biggest Big Ten tests still nearly a month away, starting with that Nov. 2 trip to East Lansing, that’s as it should be.

“If our goal at the end of the year is to win a Big Ten championship, it has to be,” Lewan said. “We have to do that.”

So, basically, Saturday’s effort was a fundamental first step.

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Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint breaks away from Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and James Manuel on his way to a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 28-10 in the third quarter. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News
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