September 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan QB Gardner makes it his night in every way

Brady Hoke: On Gardner's interception
Brady Hoke: On Gardner's interception:

Ann Arbor— By the time it was over, it was easier to see why Notre Dame wants the madness to end. Back on the brightest stage, raw emotion was revealed and another Michigan quarterback was unveiled, and sliced right though the Irish.

Devin Gardner didn’t make every play, but he made most of the big ones. This was glitz and grandeur and a whole lot of Gardner, with alternating flashes of stardom and redemption. And when Michigan’s 41-30 victory was sealed shortly before midnight Saturday, a snappy rendition of the “Chicken Dance” blared over the speakers at Michigan Stadium.

It wasn’t the most honorable thing to do, but it fit a night of crazy bounces and stunning swings — and the sense this was personal to some. Gardner had no choice but to take it personally after his clutch plays seemingly were buried by one huge mistake. Gardner and dynamic receiver Jeremy Gallon supplied the lead, then Gardner put it in danger —and ultimately, yanked it right back.

This didn’t end in ridiculous fashion like so many last-second thrillers between these (non-regional) rivals, but for the Wolverines, it meant as much as any. They got to break Irish hearts one final time in the Big House, winning for the seventh time in the last eight meetings here, before a record crowd of 115,109. And as these games tend to do, it could rocket the Wolverines (2-0) to all sorts of lofty places.

If it does, you can bet Gardner will be leading the way. On the night he was given the legendary No. 98 of Tom Harmon, Gardner showed he could be as special and unique as the original Ol’ No. 98. He accounted for five touchdowns, three on passes to Gallon. He threw for 294 yards and ran for 82, the final 14 yards on a third-down scramble that clinched it.

“To be able to play in front of so many people and perform and respond under adversity and pressure, it was amazing for me,” Gardner said. “I feel like, if I limit my mistakes, we can go as far as we want.”

Big play combination

I think he might be right. Remember, this is a junior who was Michigan’s leading receiver in last year’s game, trying to help Denard Robinson at quarterback. Robinson spent a lot of time sprinting through Notre Dame’s defense over the years but not last year, when Michigan committed six turnovers.

The Irish were tough again, and at times, controlled both sides of the line. Tommy Rees picked and plucked (unintentional use of the word), but couldn’t match Gardner’s big-play ability.

Gallon has developed into a terrific threat, shaking defenders on a 61-yard touchdown pass that provided a 10-0 lead. The improvisation between Gardner and Gallon is so good, it’s understandable Gardner thinks he can make something happen every snap.

He practically needed to in this one, because Michigan’s defense still has growing to do. It couldn’t generate much of a rush on Rees, which led to the shootout, which is Gardner’s kind of game.

“I didn’t learn a whole lot different than I already know,” U-M coach Brady Hoke said. “I see him every day. The thing I take from this is, he can make some very good plays, but at the same time, he’s gotta be more consistent once in a while.”

Hoke calls it the blessing and the curse of a talented, mobile quarterback who can escape trouble so often, he never stops trying. Mostly, that’s good, but not always.

With Michigan in command 34-20 in the fourth quarter, Gardner scrambled and retreated and scrambled some more, than heaved a pass from his own end zone that Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt snatched for an easy touchdown. Just like that, the Irish were rallying and the Wolverines were reeling, and this was one of those heavy defining moments that come along, oh, every other week.

But it was the biggest one for Gardner, making his seventh career start. And his response with Michigan clinging to a 34-30 lead was perfect. Helped by two pass interference penalties, the Wolverines drove 75 yards, and on second down from the 4, Gardner stood in against a fierce rush and fired a touchdown strike to Drew Dileo with 4:18 left.

Puitting the pieces together

Redemption? It was everywhere, from the tough running of Fitzgerald Toussaint as he returns from a leg injury, to a pair of interceptions by Blake Countess as he returns from a knee injury. True to the rivalry’s form, the last interception came on a double carom, off the knee of teammate Raymon Taylor, essentially ending the game with 1:29 left.

“I always remember that everybody’s going to look at me for confirmation that we’ll be all right,” Gardner said. “I was pretty upset with myself because I made a horrible mistake that could’ve cost us the game. But the defense gave us a place to stand, and I went out and finished it.”

He finished it with authority. And while Michigan’s return to an authoritative style is still evolving, there’s no doubt it’s coming back. Gardner is more of the pro-style quarterback that Hoke wants, scrambling when a pass play breaks down, not running as much by design.

The Wolverines need to keep building in the trenches, but the pieces are aligning for Big Ten title runs. Unfortunately, the Irish won’t be back anytime soon to test it. They opted to end the series after next year’s game in South Bend, and coach Brian Kelly tried to explain it by downplaying the national impact of the rivalry.

Uh, that didn’t work so well, even prompting ESPN’s Lee Corso to trot out chickens when he made his pregame pick of a Notre Dame victory. With a halftime laser show and an appearance on the national broadcast by Detroit’s own Eminem, this felt as big as a regular-season game can feel. Gardner and Michigan met the moment, and showed there should be more big moments ahead.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner stumbled, but righted himself and led the Wolverines to victory. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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