Minnesota to face reeling Michigan

The Wolverines sit near the bottom of the FBS with 12 turnovers this year.

Jack Satzinger

About six weeks ago, Devin Gardner was all smiles entering into his senior season.

Sitting at a round table surrounded by nearly a dozen media members, the Michigan quarterback discussed his increased chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, the looming rivalry game at Notre Dame and the Wolverines’ passing attack — which he said would be “without a doubt” the best in the Big Ten.

But times have changed.

Michigan (2-2) ranks 12th in the conference in passing offense, it was shut out by Notre Dame after failing to score a point in a game for the first time in 30 years, and Gardner’s Heisman chances are as good as gone.

It’s easy to pin the Wolverines’ shortcomings on Gardner, who’s thrown six interceptions in four games and put his starting job in jeopardy. But Michigan is still trying to recover from losing left tackle Taylor Lewan to the NFL and has a youthful offensive line.

Michigan redshirt sophomore Ben Braden has started every game this season after playing in only two contests last year. Freshman Mason Cole has started each game this year at left tackle.

Consequently, the pocket has repeatedly collapsed on Gardner, resulting in turnovers. Michigan has turned the ball over 12 times this season and is tied for 122nd in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. 

“They’re not playing quite as well up front as they have in the past,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “I think the experience on the offensive line right now is what’s giving them a little bit of trouble.”

Going up against Minnesota’s defense, which ranks second in the nation in forcing turnovers, doesn’t bode well for Michigan’s young front line.

“We’re feeling good. We were able to get some guys in the backfield and create some havoc against San Jose [State], and we’ve got the taste in our mouths. We want some more,” Minnesota senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said.

 Botticelli added that forcing turnovers is all about speed and pursuit to the ball. Michigan’s athletes have blown Minnesota off the field in the past, but this year could be different.

“We have the athletes to match their athletes, and we’re big and we’re physical and we can run just like them,” senior running back David Cobb said. “I definitely think it’ll be a much closer game than people think.”

Gardner has been a thorn in Minnesota’s side for the past two seasons, throwing for nearly 250 yards in both games and powering Michigan to blowout victories.  

The Gophers are scouting both Gardner and backup quarterback Shane Morris, who may start.

Even though things have quickly gone south for Gardner, Minnesota is looking to stop him and beat Michigan for just the second time since 1987.

“I’d prepare for Gardner just because he’s been their guy for a few years now,” Botticelli said. “There isn’t a whole lot of room for error. … A sloppy football game isn’t going to get it done.”