MINNEAPOLIS — Denard Robinson took only a handful of throws during pregame warmups, and the writing was on the wall well before kickoff.
The Michigan football team’s starting quarterback wasn’t going to play, a point UM’s media relations staff announced minutes before the start of the Wolverines’ 35-13 win over Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
In his first few minutes as Robinson’s replacement, Devin Gardner appeared shaky and got bailed out by a defense that still allowed 83 yards in the first quarter.
After Minnesota took a 7-0 lead five seconds into the second quarter on John Rabe’s 10-yard touchdown catch, the urgency took over for the Wolverines.
Gardner, in his first start of the season at quarterback, began to find his groove. Running back Thomas Rawls established a churning presence in Michigan’s backfield. The defense honed in on the Gophers. And behind touchdowns by Drew Dileo — who was clear in the end zone to make a 45-yard catch, Michigan’s first touchdown in three weeks — and Rawls, the Wolverines took a 14-7 lead at halftime.
“We knew that we were a little beat up offensively and that we were going to have to come out and play some solid defense,” said senior safety Jordan Kovacs, who had six tackles and sacked quarterback Philip Nelson less than three minutes into the game to thwart Minnesota’s first drive.
Jeremy Gallon, Gardner, and Fitzgerald Toussaint added second-half touchdowns for the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten), who held the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) to 143 yards and Jordan Wettstein’s two field goals in the second half.
“The defense played great and got us the ball, but as an offense, we need to be able to capitalize more instead of getting one touchdown,” said Nelson, who finished 13-for-29 passing for 142 yards. “We need to make more opportunities.”
With Gardner arguably becoming UM’s de facto No. 2 quarterback, the Wolverines retained the Little Brown Jug for the fifth consecutive year — the trophy given annually to the Michigan-Minnesota winner — and became bowl-eligible.
“We have confidence in Devin,” said Wolverines linebacker Jake Ryan, who had nine tackles.
“He played quarterback throughout the week, and he was doing really well for us. Just coming back from that receiver position, I feel like he progressed and knew what he was doing that whole time. He definitely looked good.”
Gardner said he found out right before game that he would start in place of Robinson, who dressed but did not take a snap against the Golden Gophers.
“All week, I got a lot of reps,” said Gardner, who was recruited out of Detroit’s Inkster High School as a quarterback. “I just prepared like I was going to be starting, except preparing, you never know what’s going to happen. So you’ve got to prepare like you’re going to start, and I did.”
Still, the Gophers said they anticipated Robinson’s absence, despite preparing to face the senior in the week leading up to the Legends Division game.
“It wasn’t really a surprise because we saw last week that he got hurt, but we didn’t know if he was going to play or not,” said Minnesota defensive back Troy Stoudermire, who led Minnesota with nine tackles. “We just had to prepare as if he was going to play, when we saw Gardner out there, he’s a really good quarterback, also.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke anticipated that Robinson will play Saturday against Northwestern. “I am very optimistic,” Hoke said, but he wasn’t surprised by Gardner’s transition, either.
Gardner was 1 for 3 passing in the first quarter for seven yards with an interception, but had 119 passing yards at halftime and finished with 234 yards in the air, Michigan’s highest aerial output since Robinson’s 291 yards Sept. 15 in a 63-13 win over Massachusetts.
“The pass game was OK for me,” Gardner said. “But the thing was protection, to make sure I got those protections so I can do the run game.
“I was pretty nervous coming in, to know how I would handle that, but I handled it pretty well.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.