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Lions brace for athletic Michigan quarterback Gardner

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 7:42 p.m.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner escapes a tackle from Minnesota linebacker James Manuel in the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013.

Penn State's defense has been stellar at times this season, abysmal at others.

Inconsistent? Maybe. But closer examination reveals that the up-and-down nature of the Nittany Lions defense is directly related to the quality of the opposing team's starting quarterback.

With that in mind, guess who's coming to Happy Valley on Saturday? A quarterback considered by many to be among the nation's most dynamic.

“He's great, an outstanding playmaker,” Penn State safety Malcolm Willis said of Michigan's Devin Gardner. “So as a defense, we've really got to buckle down and get ready to take on the challenge of their offense as a whole and, in particular, of him being the signal-caller.”

Gardner accounts for an average of 270.8 yards per game (207.2 passing, 63.6 rushing). That ranks him second in the Big Ten.

The only player ahead of him is Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, who lit up the Penn State defense for 321 passing yards in a 44-24 victory in the Lions' Big Ten opener last week.

Penn State's other loss was to Central Florida in a game in which senior and NFL prospect Blake Bortles completed 74 percent of his passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns.

Against the two best quarterbacks they've faced this season, the Lions lost both games and allowed an average of 39 points and 496.5 yards. During Penn State's three victories, opposing offenses managed an average of 5.6 points and 211 yards.

But consider the starting quarterbacks the Lions faced in the games they won:

• Syracuse's Drew Allen was an offseason transfer making his first career start. He would later lose that job

• Tyler Benz of Eastern Michigan entered the Penn State game as 2-7 against FBS competition as a starter

• Kent State's Colin Reardon was a freshman four weeks into his playing career

Conversely, Gardner was on the preseason watch lists for the Maxwell (best overall player in college football) and Davey O'Brien (best quarterback) awards.

“He's a really, really good player,” Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. “He's a competitive guy. We've got a big challenge ahead of us playing against a guy like that who's a high-character guy and who's a really good player, the type of guy that poses a big threat any time you play against a quarterback like that.”

A converted receiver, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Gardner has the athleticism to present problems for opposing defenses. His career average yards-per-catch was 15.8, and he carries a streak of nine consecutive games with a rushing touchdown into the 5 p.m. Saturday kickoff at Beaver Stadium.

Against the best team Gardner and the No. 18 Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) have faced so far this season, Gardner accounted for 376 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 7. He's had at least 235 passing yards in three of five games and 52 or more rushing yards in four of them.

“Against him, it's really important for the linebackers to know their assignments, know their keys, know where they have to be on each individual play,” Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson said.

“He's a dangerous guy,” O'Brien said, “because he can run and throw, and there's a number of guys like that in this conference. The thing you've got to try to do is try to really keep him in the pocket. When he gets out of the pocket, he's dangerous. Very dangerous.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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