After a rough, though undefeated, non-conference slate, Michigan begins Big Ten play this Saturday. They host Minnesota at the Big House with a chance to make things right and start Big Ten play on a high note. What has to change for that to happen?
There has been a lot wrong with Michigan’s play the last two weeks. After an impressive win over Notre Dame week 2, the Wolverines struggled mightily with FBS bottom feeders Akron and UConn. The offensive line was bad, the defense couldn’t get a pass rush, and they had no running game and a poor special teams. All of these factors helped make Michigan a national punchline the last two games, while also smothering any confidence that fans had in them after their win over the Irish. But the most troubling aspect was not any of those. It was Devin Gardner.
Gardner, who was productive and efficient on both his feet and through the air the first two games of the year, has been a mess the last two. Gone is any confidence the first year starter had. The playmaking swagger that Gardner possessed has been replaced with a shaky, cringe inducing presence. Gardner has been missing big plays down the field and turning the ball over way too much. He has had happy feet in the pocket, has been sailing throws over the middle off his back foot and just making poor choices with the football. Instead of playing within himself and utilizing his talents, Gardner has been launching up bad throws into coverage.
The results have been real ugly. He has thrown 5 picks the last two games, along with two fumbles. Over 7.9% of Gardner’s attempts have been intercepted this year through four games, after being intercepted less than 4% of the time in 2012. Also, the context of that statistic makes it even more troubling: all of Gardner’s starts in 2012 were against Big Ten foes and South Carolina, while his disappointing 2013 has come against bad competition.
Now Gardner has to get ready for Big Ten play. Michigan has been able to get away with their poor play against the awful competition they have faved (Michigan’s 4 opponents have a combined record of 5-14), but that isn’t going to work against better conference foes. Minnesota isn’t particularly good, but if Michigan plays as poorly as they have and Gardner turns the ball over multiple times, the Gophers will walk out of the Big House with a win.
And Michigan can’t afford that. If they want to win the Legends Division, they can’t afford to give up games to teams like Minnesota at home. The Wolverines’ final five games are: at Michigan State, Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa and Ohio State. That’s a really tough finishing stretch. So, if they want to make it to the Big Ten title game, Michigan has to be 3-0 heading into East Lansing.
But first thing’s first: Gardner has to get a whole lot better Saturday, so Michigan can take care of the Gophers and get conference play off to a better start.
You can follow Alex Dale on Twitter @alexdaleCFB