ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Out of necessity or for tactical reasons, Michigan coach Brady Hoke refused to provide a clue about Denard Robinson’s availability to play against Northwestern.
“I’m not giving day-to-day updates,” Hoke said, more than once.
That leaves everyone – including the Wildcats – waiting until Saturday to see if Robinson is healthy enough to play. Last week, Hoke said he fully expected the spectacular quarterback to play at Minnesota, only to leave him on the sideline because of an injured right elbow.
The Wolverines found out that Devin Gardner could lead them to a win. The junior QB, who moved to receiver this year to get on the field, flourished in his first start under center in a 35-13 victory over the Golden Gophers.
“You always like to have the depth in every position, whether it be quarterback or your nose tackle,” Hoke said. “Having guys who have done it before and shown you that they can do it and have done a good job, that’s always a big part of it.”
Playing quarterback extensively for the first time since leading Inkster High School to a Michigan state finals game in 2009, Gardner was 12-for-18 for 234 yards with two touchdown passes. He created some plays by moving in the pocket, including his 47-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Gallon, and accounted for a third TD with a 2-yard run to help Michigan pull away in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he expects Robinson to play, but he won’t think his team is getting a break if Gardner is in the game under center.
“To watch the way that he picked right back up at quarterback was very, very impressive,” Fitzgerald said.
Gardner led the Wolverines on 91- and 90-yard scoring drives in consecutive possessions – the first time college football’s winningest program had ever done that – and helped them drive 86 and 79 yards for two other TDs. He acknowledged having doubts – until he played in the game.
“Live action is when you can prove that you can do things,” Gardner said.
Michigan (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) might have to lean again on Gardner on Saturday against Northwestern (7-2, 3-2).
The Wolverines need a victory to keep alive their hopes of winning their first Big Ten title since 2004. They’re tied with Nebraska atop the Legends Division, but their loss 2 weeks ago against the Cornhuskers hurt because they’ll lose a tiebreaker if both teams finish with 7-1 Big Ten records.
The Wildcats, who’ve gone 10-4 in November the previous four seasons, are anything but pushovers. And they’re rested, coming off their bye week.
“I think for everybody it’s really been huge, but especially for a lot of our guys who have been out there in the trenches week in and week out,” Northwestern defensive end Quentin Williams said. “We’ve had a week here to really take a step back and get our legs back, and I think it’s really been great for me.”
Northwestern should be relatively confident as well after winning its last game at the Big House in 2008. If the Wildcats win Saturday, they will have consecutive victories at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1934 and 1936 and for just the second time in the series that dates to 1892.
An upset against the Wolverines would also improve Northwestern’s postseason positioning.
“Somebody’s mom mentioned a bowl we’re supposed to be in, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it,” Northwestern receiver Christian Jones said. “I was just worried about playing Michigan and winning that game.”