Gardner solid on third downs, in red zone

Even though Devin Gardner hasn’t quite produced all the highlight-reel plays that Denard Robinson did in his first few starts, he has done something that Robinson didn’t always do: produce, especially on third downs and in the red zone.

And that clearly evident this weekend as the Wolverines took down Notre Dame in the Big House. In the red zone, the Wolverines were 4-of-4 with Gardner accounting for every score (three passing, one rushing). Last season against the Irish, in five trips to the red zone, the Wolverines didn’t reach the end zone and instead, had two turnovers. While Gardner, through seven starts, has yet to turn the ball over in the red zone even once.

But Michigan coach Brady Hoke wouldn’t attribute Michigan’s perfection in the red zone on Saturday to just Gardner.

"It's never one guy," Hoke said. "I think the offensive staff has done a nice job game planning red zones, taking advantage of what people give you. I think the execution has been pretty good."

The execution might be pretty good, but a lot of the production has been Gardner. In his seven starts at QB, Michigan has gotten to the red zone 27 times and scored 23 touchdowns (85.2 percent), and Gardner accounted for 19 of those touchdowns. In the last five years, the highest red zone touchdown percentage for any team in FBS recorded has been 86.4.

Since Nov. 1 of last season, Gardner has recorded a total QBR of 98.4 in the red zone -- good enough for fourth in the nation, which is pretty impressive.

But he gets even better on third downs. Better, meaning perfect. As a passer, Gardner is 21-of-21 on passing plays on third downs.

On Saturday, the Wolverines were 6-of-12 on third downs. Two of those conversions were on passing plays -- a 6-yard pass on third-and-2 to Drew Dileo and a 22-yard pass on third-and-6 (with a QB hurry) to Jeremy Gallon, both of which produced first downs.

The other four conversions were rushing plays -- three from Gardner (a four-yard rush on third-and-3, a 10-yard rush on third-and-8 and a 14-yard rush on third-and-12) and one from running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (a four-yard rush on third-and-1).

Last week Gardner said he couldn’t really explain his success on third downs but that he does have a different mentality going in to them.

“That’s the money down -- the coaches talk about it all the time,” Gardner said. “Even for our defense, they try to get off the field and we try to stay on the field. We work on third downs so much in practice. … That’s big.”

Before Gardner took over as the Wolverines’ starter on Nov. 3, Michigan’s third-down conversion percentage under Robinson for the previous two seasons was 47.3 percent. Since then, under Gardner, that number has jumped to 56.7 percent.

And it should be no surprise that the Wolverines have been 5-2 in that time period. And in Michigan’s two losses, its third-down conversions were less than Gardner’s average (4-of-10 against Ohio State and 8-of-19 against South Carolina).

“When you can stay on the field on third downs, it hurts the defense,” Gardner said. “Their focus, it goes away because they’re like, ‘Oh, we stopped them for two downs and then on the third down they get the first down.’”

The Wolverines will now face a few defenses in the nonconference season that won’t challenge them quite as much in the red zone or on third downs. But throughout the Big Ten season, Michigan will face three of the top four defenses in the conference as well as four of the top five red zone defenses in the Big Ten.

Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this article.