Mitch Albom analyzes a sweet win for the Wolverines
A perfect night for U-M under the lights
They draped him in history, then asked him to make some. Devin Gardner, wearing the revered No. 98 that once belonged to Tom Harmon, was handed the football in what, for now, was the last scheduled game in Ann Arbor in a 126-year rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame.
That’s a lot of gravitas for the second game of a season. But if there’s magic in a jersey, it seemed to be in old 98, because Gardner, under the Saturday night lights – in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a college football game – was maturing before our eyes. Dominating the offensive play, he channeled Harmon, who was famous for doing everything. What didn’t Gardner do? He threw. He ran. He even crashed a block on a double reverse. Early in the fourth quarter, he’d thrown for three touchdowns, rushed for 66 yards, and showed a chemistry with receiver Jeremy Gallon that has Elvis-to-Desmond written all over it.
And then it all came apart.
On one terrible play.
In the fourth quarter, third-and-11 from his 16 – if that doesn’t say “danger,” what does? – Gardner took the snap, stared backpedaling and found himself heavily pursued by Irish safety Austin Collingsworth. He kept backpedaling, until Collingsworth was on him like a swarm of bees. They were both in the end zone. The crowd went from gasping to yelling to panicking. And for the first time all night, Gardenr did the same.
He threw the ball as he was going down, a cardinal sin, and Notre Dame’s massive lineman Stephon Tuitt came barreling toward it and dove as if he were a man trying to catch a falling baby. He caught it, too. And the Wolverines had just handed Notre Dame six points in the worst – and fastest -way possible.
Why Michigan didn’t hand the ball off on such a play is a good question. Why Gardner didn’t just take the safety is another. But whatever magic that jersey was responsible for, it seemed to be all gone now. There was one thing and one thing only that Gardner and coach Brady Hoke said repeatedly all week. They couldn’t turn the ball over.
“Just don’t turn the football over,” Gardner told the media. “That’s all it comes down to.”
You saw where this was headed.
And then it changed
Suddenly, it was like one of those zombie movies, where every safe place you turn is instantly dangerous. Gallon went down and came up limping. He would leave the game with an apparent leg injury and be gimpy the rest of the way. Michigan got hit with a penalty and punted a tepid 21 yards. Notre Dame pushed downfield and kicked a field goal to close it to 34-30. Gardner was suddenly throwing off his back foot, looking unsure – and that’s a mild word for how the fans felt.
But if this rivalry has taught us anything, it’s that there are the first three quarters and then there is the fourth. The final minutes of Michigan-Notre Dame are often like a Russian novel.
And so Gardner led the Wolverines back out, starting at their 25. Fitzgerald Toussaint scampered for 22 yards. Then he took a short pass and went another 31. And then on two consecutive third downs, the Irish were called for pass interference, keeping the drive alive and providing talk-radio fodder in South Bend for at least a year.
Finally, on a second-and-goal from the 4, Gardner fired as he got hit and found Drew Dileo for a touchdown.
There was 4:18 left.
Notre Dame came charging back. They marched through the Michigan defense, and it looked for sure that the Irish were touchdown bound. But with the end zone in sight, just six yards away, quarterback Tommy Rees fired the ball hard, it went off a receiver’s hands, then off Raymon Tayor’s knee, then into the arms of cornerback Blake Countess for the interception – right in the area where Gardner had seemingly turned the night into a disaster.
Game all but over.
That’s what they call a turnaround.
An incredible night
Minutes later, the Wolverines were dancing off with a 41-30 victory. And quite an education. Although both teams came in 1-0, this was the first real measuring stick of the season for both programs. Notre Dame, which relied on a Manti Te’o-led defense last year, appears more offensively reliant this year, its defense surrendering long drives all night. The Wolverines, on the other hand – still undefeated at home in the Hoke era – have defensive issues of their own. They rarely put any pressure on Rees. And their special teams gave up far too many long returns.
But this game has traditionally been both a measuring stick and a learning opportunity, and Michigan will learn from its mistakes Saturday night. Just as it learned what it fabulous weapon it had in Gardner. He finished with four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, 82 yards on the ground and 294 yards in the air.
After the game, the quarterback was asked about wearing Harmon’s 98 by ESPN.
“It’s such an honor,” Gardner said, smiling. “The things he did. He came back from a plane cash and survived it.”
OK. So it wasn’t a plane crash. But Gardner did some pretty good surviving of his own.
Game over. Rivalry nearly over. That’s a shame. But from a Maize and Blue perspective, at least, they give the Fighting Irish something to remember them by.
ALBOM: A perfect night for Michigan under the Big House lights