Quarterback Devin Gardner knows he needs to take care of the ball this week.
After all, it was a year ago that the Wolverines turned the ball over six times to Notre Dame en route to a 13-6 loss in South Bend. And this year, with the last scheduled meeting between No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 17 Michigan in Michigan Stadium, Gardner knows a lot is falling on him and his arm.
Gardner threw two picks in Michigan’s season-opening 59-9 win against Central Michigan. And while the interceptions didn’t cause a total breakdown for the Wolverines’ game plan, they know they can’t allow those kind of errors in this weekend’s matchup with Notre Dame, which features a much stronger defensive front seven.
“The biggest issues were interceptions,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “That's got to go away, because that's going to come back and haunt you.”
But Borges knows it’s a part of the growing process. Gardner’s start against the Irish will be just the seventh start of his career. But Borges seems to be giving Gardner a fair amount of freedom in the passing game and the running game for the Wolverines.
And it seems to be paying off as Gardner is making many of the right calls for the Wolverines.
No, it’s not the same look Michigan has given over the past few seasons. And for better or for worse, Gardner is not Denard Robinson.
Gardner’s arm appears to be more reliable thus far in his career, though his feet -- still effective -- are not quite as explosive as Robinson's were.
But for the Wolverines, that has been a good thing. Michigan receivers look to Gardner as a pass-first QB, but they are ready to block for him when he does take off -- like he did for two rushing touchdowns last Saturday against Central Michigan.
“You can't keep him from doing what he does,” Borges said. “Nor would you want to. You just have to make sure you're always using good judgment. Every play is different. Sometimes he gets out of a mess, and you have to tell him what he should have done or shouldn't have done.”
But on third downs, Gardner seems to be doing exactly what he should be doing. On Monday, he referred to it as the “money down,” and that’s exactly what he has been -- money.
On third downs (since becoming the starter on Nov. 3, 2012), Gardner has completed 19 passes, all of which have converted into first downs or touchdowns for the Wolverines. His total QBR of 98.8 on third downs is second best in the nation.
The statistics back up Gardner’s play, and he seems to be coming in to his own as a QB. And though Borges has said before he’s not much of a stats man, the one that does matter is turnovers.
That’s the one that everyone will be talking about on Saturday. Six turnovers. This year, can Notre Dame do that again? Can Michigan avoid it? Can Gardner?
He knows if he wants to give Michigan a chance, he must.
“You always want to be bold,” Gardner said. “But you've got to protect the football. Just don't turn the football over, that's all it comes down to.”