October 29, 2013 at 1:20 am

Bob Wojnowski

Devin Gardner is Wolverines' wild card against snarling Spartans

U-M's Lewan, Hoke discuss rivlary with MSU
U-M's Lewan, Hoke discuss rivlary with MSU: Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and head coach Brady Hoke talk about the team's rivalry with Michigan State.

Ann Arbor — It’s still painful for them to admit, and the Wolverines hope they don’t have to admit it much longer. The Spartans have the superior defense, the more-physical offensive line, the tougher disposition. They’ve won four of the past five meetings and their top-ranked defense is prepared to punish.

That’s the prevailing narrative, and the Wolverines are desperate to change it.

“If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face, would you take that personally?” offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said Monday. “Nobody likes to get bullied, and that’s what they did two years ago — they bullied us. … We’re not going to get bullied this year.”

We’ve heard it before, and are waiting to see it. It won’t be easy for Michigan to slug it out with Michigan State, not with their unrefined offensive and defensive lines. But the Wolverines have the wild card, even if it’s a card Brady Hoke would rather not overuse. They have Devin Gardner, the one guy who can win the game for either team.

When he’s throwing deep or running smartly, Gardner is the most dangerous quarterback in the Big Ten, leading with 328.4 total yards per game. When he’s trying to do too much and turning it over (10 interceptions), he scares his own team.

The Wolverines (6-1) haven’t won in East Lansing in six years, and the Spartans (7-1) could put a strangehold on the Legends division with a victory. Michigan State is becoming what it aims to be under Mark Dantonio, a perennial bowl participant and conference contender, a team with a snarl.

In his third season, Hoke is still trying to build that type of team, and should feel increasing urgency to do so. The Wolverines aren’t there, and Saturday’s game becomes a major test of the program’s development. They’ve won with Gardner and receivers Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess, entertaining but difficult to sustain. They’re coming off a 63-47 victory over Indiana and a 43-40 four-overtime loss to Penn State, and with Gardner’s unpredictability and the defense’s deficiencies, there’s no guessing which Michigan team will trot onto the field.

Streak changes things

A couple weeks ago, we were saying the same thing about the Spartans’ anemic offense. I’m not sure if their 42-3 victory over Illinois changed everything, but it did alter perceptions. It’s a stark contrast now, considering the two rivals are so close in the standings and the rankings. Michigan State has used its terrific defense to buy time while quarterback Connor Cook develops. Michigan has used Gardner and his receivers to buy time while its trenches develop.

It was vaguely similar last year. The Spartans didn’t allow a touchdown but Denard Robinson made a couple magical plays, including a 20-yard pass to Drew Dileo in the closing seconds that led to a 12-10 victory, snapping the Wolverines’ four-game losing streak in the series.

Not to frazzle the Old Blues, but on Michigan’s all-important rival scale, Michigan State has climbed up alongside Ohio State. In fact, you could argue the Spartans’ streak is a major reason Hoke is here. The Wolverines aren’t the only team to get beat by the Buckeyes, but getting beat up by the Spartans is less acceptable.

Two years ago, Michigan State slammed its way to a 28-14 victory, winning the ground game and the nasty intimidation game, holding Robinson to 42 yards rushing. The Spartans were whistled for 13 penalties (five personal fouls) and Lewan took a punch from William Gholston, who was suspended for a game.

“Oh yeah, we talk about it all the time,” senior offensive tackle Michael Schofield said. “The way they described it was 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness, and that’s pretty much how we describe it.”

Gardner must be good

Punches don’t win games but slugging it out — figuratively — does. Michigan is starting three youngsters on the interior of its line, including true freshman guard Kyle Bosch, a tempting invitation for Michigan State’s blitz-happy linebackers.

In some ways, the most important play Saturday might be the incomplete pass, and Gardner can’t be reluctant to toss it away. If Michigan State’s defense forces turnovers, with playmakers Shilique Calhoun, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and others, the bullying will continue.

Some think that’s exactly what will happen because defenses rule, and Michigan’s traditional running game with Fitzgerald Toussaint has been mostly meek. But Gardner made spectacular plays to beat Notre Dame, and Michigan State hasn’t faced a quarterback quite like him.

“I don’t like the inconsistencies, but I’m not displeased we’re a 6-1 football team, and four overtimes from being 7-0,” Hoke said. “We gotta take advantage of opportunities.”

Hoke knows the deal. Using Gardner’s legs is a fine way to move the ball, but not the best way to survive a long season or a rugged defense. Hoke is still searching for a signature road victory, for a definitive sign his program can mash again with the brutes. The Wolverines aren’t there yet, but for now, their next-best option isn’t a bad one, as long as the Gardner who shows up is the good one.


When he's throwing deep or running smartly, Devin Gardner is the most dangerous quarterback in the Big Ten, leading with 328.4 total yards per game. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News
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