ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every Saturday after Michigan finishes a game and the managers lock up the footballs and helmets, the students return to their campus homes and the lights in Michigan Stadium are shut down, Devin Gardner can be found in the film room by himself.
Last Saturday was like the two before it for him. The routine was the same: postgame interviews, shower, dinner, then the film room. But this time he had to watch what he had described as possibly his “worst game ever.” He couldn’t even remember a high school game when the mistakes had compounded like that.
And not only had they compounded, they had compounded against a team the Wolverines should’ve beaten by five touchdowns.
But the only thing Gardner could do was watch the film and learn from it. He knew he needed to learn from it. For the always-positive Gardner, something good had to come from that performance.
He was 16 of 30. He threw three interceptions. He fumbled the ball and on the ensuing eight attempts, he threw seven incompletions and one interception -- mistake after mistake. Offensive coordinator Al Borges had called the offense “nice looking plays surrounded by garbage.”
Gardner would try to take in the nice and the garbage. And the next day, he’d return to Schembechler Hall to do the same, this time with Borges.
Borges had been in his ear -- through the headset -- every time Gardner stepped off the field. Gardner knew Borges saw it differently from the box with a bird’s eye view of the game.
Borges and Gardner are both even-keeled. It’s a part of their relationship that makes them fit together so well and work together even better.
For Gardner -- a quarterback who still just has eight starts under his belt -- Borges knows that screaming and overloading isn’t the answer. That often leads to what he calls “paralysis by analysis.” Instead, simple, thoughtful conversations are the way they go about it.
“What you have to do is keep your composure as a coach and a player, so you’re not being a hypocrite, you’re not saying, ‘Keep you’re poise’ and all of a sudden you’re a screaming maniac -- that’s a mixed signal there,” Borges said. “You have to keep your poise, know what you want to call next, keep them informed and tell him what he’s doing wrong. That way you can correct the errors so hopefully they won’t show up again.”
And for the most part, Gardner’s mistakes haven’t shown up again.
Yes, he has thrown interceptions and incompletions -- but never for the exact same reason. Borges rarely needs to “re-coach” his star pupil.
But Saturday seemed different for Gardner. The mistakes kept coming and nothing he did was getting the Wolverines out of trouble.
“Offensively, we kind of have a microwave mentality -- we want it now,” Borges said. “And then it’s, ‘Oh god it didn’t happen. Well, now we want it!’ It’s a new series. Oh, it hasn’t happened yet? Well sometimes these problems perpetuate themselves and before you know it you’re pressing a little bit. … It can lend itself to some errors.”
And errors were what Gardner got.
So on Sunday, Borges and Gardner discussed, broke down and re-examined those errors. But they also looked at the good. And then they moved on and began getting ready for UConn.
Gardner knows he can’t be timid going into this weekend. No, he didn’t play a great game last weekend, but the worst thing a quarterback can do is allow one weekend to affect the next, let one team beat him twice (even though Akron didn’t technically beat him once).
Borges wants Gardner to be the kind of quarterback he is -- one who creates, scrambles and tests the water. If Michigan wanted to play it safe, they’d never let him run, especially when considering the lack of depth behind him.
But for the Wolverines, against UConn -- and every team -- the risk of Gardner being Gardner outweighs the cons of Gardner being forced to sit in the pocket.
“There’s a fine line between being a playmaker and making a bad decision,” Borges said. “Sometimes, the playmakers step over that line and sometimes the playmakers supposedly step over that line and make a play. So, as a coach, you have to make sure you keep them aggressive, you can’t scare them in to playing cautiously.”
Now Gardner is forced with a challenge he has yet to face in his career as the starter: moving past a huge disappointment and an embarrassing showing.
The Wolverines have only lost two games with Gardner as a starter. Both losses were by five points and both came to highly ranked opponents. A near loss to a MAC team is something completely new to Gardner, and learning how to move on from that is a new experience, as well.
But he knows it’s the only thing to do, too.
And he’ll have the chance Saturday evening when Michigan takes the field at 8 p.m. against UConn, another team the Wolverines are heavily favored against.
“That’s all it takes -- you have to move forward,” Gardner said. “You can’t dwell on a game where we won. You have to watch the film and improve. That’s it. Move forward from it.”