MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota had the momentum, the break and the motivation it needed to beat Michigan.
With Wolverines star quarterback Denard Robinson on the sideline and unable to play, the Gophers took an early lead Saturday and were dominating the game midway through the second quarter.
But with one slick scramble and a heave to the end zone, Devin Gardner and the Wolverines were on their way to another decisive win in this lopsided series.
Gardner replaced Robinson in a surprise switch by Michigan right before kickoff, throwing two touchdown passes and running for another score to lead the Wolverines past Minnesota 35-13.
“Any loss hurts, and to lose in that fashion is going to hurt bad,” safety Brock Vereen said, adding: “We had plenty of opportunities. They made those plays, and we didn’t.”
Gardner woke up the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) after they had gone two straight games without a touchdown, guiding scoring drives of 91, 90, 86 and 79 yards to squash the hope the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) had of an upset.
Robinson was expected to play despite nerve damage in his right elbow that forced him out of two of the previous three games, but coach Brady Hoke decided Friday against using him. Gardner didn’t let the Wolverines down in his return from wide receiver to his original position, going 12 for 18 for 234 yards despite one interception to hand the Gophers their 38th loss in the last 41 games for the Little Brown Jug trophy.
“When we saw Gardner out there, he’s really a mobile quarterback also, it’s almost the same ability as Denard Robinson,” cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. “So we had to play the same way.”
Minnesota hasn’t beaten Michigan at home since 1977. Coach Jerry Kill referenced the streak in explaining his decision to try a fake field goal on fourth-and-16 at the 19 early in the third quarter with the Gophers only trailing 14-7.
The throw by holder Pete Mortell to quarterback Philip Nelson, who sneaked off near the sideline to try to catch the Wolverines off guard, was 11 yards short of the first down. Then Wolverines went the other way and stretched their lead to two touchdowns, when Jeremy Gallon grabbed a 10-yard throw by Gardner in the corner of the end zone.
“We weren’t going to beat them, making field goals,” Kill said.
Then Kill decided to kick twice in the fourth quarter on drives when the Gophers had got inside the 5-yard line, trailing 21-7 and then 28-10.
From poorly timed penalties to missed tackles to ineffective play calls in short-yardage and third-down situations, the Gophers had plenty to be frustrated about after taking a 7-0 lead on Nelson’s touchdown pass to John Rabe. Eight of Minnesota’s 10 possessions went past midfield.
“We got down there plenty of times, and we just couldn’t capitalize,” Nelson said. “Just like any other week, we’ve got to be able to play four quarters and not just have spurts.”
Minnesota’s second of three sacks of Gardner gave Michigan third-and-17 at the Gophers 45 midway through the second quarter. But Gardner slipped one defender at the end of his scramble to the right, pivoted and ran all the way back through the pocket to his left and launched a well-worth-the-effort heave to a wide-open Drew Dileo for the score.
“It’s always difficult to guard a receiver for about 20 seconds,” Stoudermire said.
Then when the Wolverines had the ball again, Gardner escaped a sack in his own end zone and connected with Ray Roundtree for a first down. A 2-yard run by Thomas Rawls finished off the 13-play march to make it 14-7.
Gardner took most of the snaps in practice this week while Robinson rested and healed, but coach Brady Hoke said all along the speedy senior would play.
Michigan’s pass defense, tied with Alabama for the stingiest in the nation, pressured Nelson into a 13-for-29, 142-yard performance. The Gophers played without their best wide receiver, A.J. Barker, who sprained his ankle in last week’s win over Purdue.
They’re still one win from becoming eligible for a bowl game, with trips to Illinois and Nebraska next followed by a home game against Michigan State.
“We had all the momentum in the world,” Vereen said. “At some point, we lost it. And we struggled to get it back.”
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