How Can Devin Gardner Salvage Michigan's Season?

Andrew CoppensContributor INovember 19, 2013

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 16: Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines outruns Deonte Gibson #98 of the Northwestern Wildcats during play in overtime at Ryan Field on November 16, 2013 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Inconsistency and the 2013 Michigan Wolverines are nearly inseparable. The same holds true for junior quarterback Devin Gardner, yet with two games left on the schedule there is an opportunity left for Gardner and the team to salvage a double-digit win season. 

Just a few weeks ago that didn't seem like a possibility and for three quarters on Saturday in Evanston, it appeared as if those hopes were about to go out the window. 

Gardner spent most of the day frustrated by holding on to the ball too long, failing to trust his instincts in the run game and not getting any help from his receivers or the miserable weather conditions. 

It has been the same story all year really, but with 9:28 left against Northwestern something clicked for Gardner and the Wolverines. 

Gardner began the Wolverines' drive by hitting wide receiver Jeremy Gallon for 24 yards, then two plays later rushed for 22 more yards—Michigan was nearly into the red zone on two plays.

Gardner continued to fire away, hitting Gallon for an 11-yard gain shortly after. Unfortunately that drive ended without points, but it didn't slow Gardner or the Wolverines down. 

They kept plugging away, and on the final drive, the miracle kick of miracle kicks happened. 

It wouldn't have happened though without the leadership and sticktoitiveness of Gardner. He went 5-of-10 passing for 48 yards on the final drive of regulation. That included the key 16-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon that put Michigan in position to kick the game-tying field goal in the first place. 

More importantly than the ability to find openings in the passing game, was what Gardner did with his feet—literally scrambling for his life on 4th-and-4 on the final drive.

He finally let instinct take over, and instinct let his team continue to play football. 

After quickly realizing the routes were all covered, Gardner slipped out to the right, faked a defender with a pass and then juked one more. By the time it was all over, Gardner had six yards and a Michigan first down. 

Gardner was far from perfect and so too was the team, even on that final drive in regulation. The 16-yard pass to Gallon could've been closer to a touchdown had Gardner not taken a 13-yard sack on the previous play; and none of it would've been possible without Northwestern dropping an interception on the last drive as well.

Nov 16, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (21) runs with the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

However, for the first time in weeks it appeared that the Wolverines and Gardner had life once again. 

The run game had positive yardage (139 yards), and the offensive line cut down on the sacks (five as compared to seven each of the last two weeks).

More than any of that though, it was the glimpse of what we all saw earlier in Gardner's career reappearing in overtime that should give hope going forward. 

In the overtime period Gardner simply took over. Not only did he hit Jake Butt from 11 yards out for the first touchdown of the day, but he had an important six-yard pass to Joe Kerridge that kept the drive alive on 3rd-and-5. 

Then there was the game-winning touchdown run from five yards out in the third overtime period. Once again, Gardner's instincts were back. 

Now the question is, after a big win will the Wolverines slip back into old habits or will they continue to grow. 

The task at hand won't be easy, with games against Iowa and Ohio State to end the season, but counting out Gardner and his competitive spirit isn't wise—just ask a desperate Northwestern squad.

If Michigan is to salvage its season and win out, it'll need more of the persevering version of the offense and more of the instinctual football that took over inside Devin Gardner.

Only time will tell if that takes hold, but Gardner trusting in himself and his teammates once again will go a long way to helping Michigan's chances.


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.