Whitmer's energy savings claim includes the 13 years before she took office

Wojo: Under the glare, Michigan shows some fight

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — No, it wasn't a program-changer or a season-maker. But in the swirl of massive adversity, it was a measure of fortitude, and a glimpse at what could have been.

Devin Gardner shook off the pain and made big throws. The defense was aggressive and punishing, sacking Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg six times. The stadium was just about full — even the student section — and noisy for the rare night game. Something strange happened on the way to the Wolverines giving up — they declined to do so.

They were determined to show life amid strife and injury, and in halting ways, they did, grinding out an 18-13 victory over the Nittany Lions on Saturday night. It was inartistic and grimy, but at least for a couple weeks (Michigan is on a bye now), it muted the conversation.

The crowd showed up, announced at 113,085, and so did Michigan's defense, after a limp performance in the loss to Rutgers. The Wolverines are 3-4 and coach Brady Hoke remains the focus of passionate debate, and it's still impossible to tell what coordinator Doug Nussmeier is doing with the offense. But as responses go, this was the type of gut check they had to show.

"I don't feel like we've given up or cashed it in, in any way, in any game," Gardner said. "I feel like we're continuing to fight and get better each week. When you face adversity, you can do two things — you can respond or not respond. I feel like I'm responding, and my teammates see me responding and we're responding as a unit."

Defense doesn't rest

Michigan isn't good enough to deliver a truly thumping response, and this came against a Penn State team with its own issues, especially on the offensive line. But the Nittany Lions have a future NFL quarterback in Hackenberg, and he was under fierce pressure all night.

Finally, Michigan's defensive line dominated without the help of many blitzes. Brennen Beyer had two sacks and Frank Clark had one, and all sorts of linebackers leapt in. Penn State is no offensive power, but Michigan allowed only 214 total yards and was in complete lockdown mode the second half.

Hoke showed just a glint of emotion afterward, maintaining an admirable stance of calm under fire. He isn't buckling and isn't making excuses and won't let his players do it either.

"The way our guys have handled the last two weeks, I don't know if many football teams could do that, persevere like they have and stay together like they have," Hoke said. "I give those kids a lot of credit in that locker room. … It'd be real easy not to be that way. It'd be real easy for guys to say, 'I want to go get mine.' But they haven't done that."

It would've been especially easy this game, with talk of a student boycott directed at athletic director Dave Brandon and the direction of the program. Those were cries of frustration, not a real call to action, understandable as Michigan careened through a deepening crisis. But it would've been wrong to direct it at the players, and at least for one game the atmosphere returned to what it once was, and the Wolverines desperately needed it.

About 200 former Michigan players lined the field as the team ran on, and the place was lit from the start. Afterward, current players said they had no idea whether the fans would be supportive, and were appreciative that they were. Maybe it was the lights, or maybe it was the all-blue uniforms — a nice look, I have to say — but the energy was palpable, right down to the final crushing sack by Clark.

When people ask if the games still matter in the middle of a miserable season, this is why they do. You saw energy in the stands and on the field, even if some was created by the setting. You saw it when kick-returner Dennis Norfleet broke out in dance as "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton blared. You saw it in Gardner, who left for two series after injuring an ankle and stalked the sideline lobbying to get back in, and later exhorted the defense.

Gardner toughs it out

Backup Russell Bellomy was thrown into a tough spot again, and had both of his passes batted down. Michigan needs to do a better job getting its backups ready, and there's no excuse for the disarray. But when Gardner trotted back in for the fourth quarter, he got another chance to lead, and directed one short drive for the winning field goal.

Gardner was 16 for 24 for 192 yards and another interception. It's impossible to judge him solely by the numbers now, without an experienced line and without No. 1 tailback Derrick Green, out for the year with a shoulder injury.

But if Gardner didn't return to the game, Michigan might as well have shut it down, if not literally. There's never a good reason to toss it in, but Gardner certainly has had reasons to cave. He has switched positions, switched systems, been benched, been hurt, all the while running from constant heat, always willing to fight again.

He said the ankle throbbed, but he expected to be OK for Michigan State in two weeks. In his mind, there was no question he was going back in.

"There's a team out there that needs me, and they said they needed me," Gardner said. "It's much bigger than myself. If I can be out there, I'm gonna be out there."

The Wolverines are running low on players and running low on time. It's hard to say what can be salvaged from this season, but at least you can say this — they care enough to find out.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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