Backup QB leads Michigan to 35-13 win over Gophers

Minnesota remains a win short of bowl eligibility with three games left.

Michigan running back Thomas Rawls scores a touchdown against Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mark Vancleave

Michigan running back Thomas Rawls scores a touchdown against Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Dane Mizutani

Michigan star quarterback Denard Robinson led his team out of the locker room Saturday, but the Wolverines didn’t need him to beat the Gophers.

Devin Gardner started at quarterback in place of the injured Robinson and looked just as good, leading the Wolverines to a 35-13 win over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.

Michigan kept the Little Brown Jug — the trophy given to the winner of the rivalry matchup — for the eighth-straight year with the win.

It was the fourth loss of the season for Minnesota, which remains one win short of bowl eligibility.

Gardner was efficient through the air and effective on the ground when he needed to be. He passed for 234 yards and two touchdowns with his arm and added a crucial touchdown with his legs in the fourth quarter.

That’s not bad for a player who hadn’t thrown a pass all season and spent most of this year playing receiver.

“[His play] didn’t surprise us,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. “He fashions himself as a quarterback.”

Minnesota, on the other hand, shackled freshman quarterback Philip Nelson one week after unleashing him in a 44-28 rout of Purdue.

The Gophers were ultra-conservative on offense from the start and rarely let Nelson throw on first down. The offense soon became predictable, which played into the hands of the No. 2 pass defense in the nation.

Nelson threw 29 times, but most of those passes came when the game was already out of hand.

“We had some opportunities in the game, but we just came up short,” Nelson said.

Minnesota started the game strong and held Michigan to nine yards of total offense in the first quarter. Then Gardner settled in, and the Wolverines exploded for 380 yards of offense the rest of the game.

Minnesota nabbed a 7-0 lead in the second quarter as Nelson hit John Rabe for a 10-yard touchdown strike, and the Gophers seemed to be rolling.

“We had all the momentum in the world,” junior safety Brock Vereen said, “and at some point we lost it, and we struggled to get it back.”

Gardner stole the momentum in the second quarter on an improvised touchdown pass that tied the game. He was flushed out of the pocket, reversed field and found Drew Dileo wide open for a 45-yard touchdown.

That play tied the game, but it broke the Gophers’ back.

“It’s hard to hold coverage for that long,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “It’s just way too much time.”

Thomas Rawls added a 2-yard touchdown plunge to give Michigan a 14-7 lead at halftime.

The Gophers made a key stop out of the break and drove down the field early in the third quarter with a chance to cut into the lead with a field goal.

Instead, they called a fake field goal that didn’t fool anyone and turned the ball over.

Kill defended his decision and said he felt that play call gave his team a chance to make a play to win the game.

“We ran that same situation 10 years ago in my career,” Kill said. “We scored, and I was a hero.”

He was the goat Saturday.

On the ensuing possession, Michigan drove 86 yards and scored to take a 14-point lead.

Jeremy Gallon, at 5 feet, 8 inches, did his best Randy Moss impression and skied over two defenders in the corner of the endzone for a 10-yard touchdown.

Minnesota responded with a 26-yard field goal by Jordan Wettstein, but it couldn’t stop Gardner. The quarterback capped a 79-yard drive with a touchdown run that slammed the door.

Wettstein tacked on another field goal, but Fitzgerald Toussaint rubbed salt in the wound with a 41-yard touchdown run to stretch the Wolverines’ lead to 35-13.

Minnesota faces Illinois next week with a chance to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009. It’s likely the most winnable game left for the Gophers, who play at Nebraska and host Michigan State to close out the season.

“This game was a loss, but we can’t let it beat us twice,” defensive back Troy Stoudermire said. “We have to move on to the next game.”