There just wasn't any way the penultimate game in the foreseeable Michigan-Notre Dame series wasn't going to be a fight to the finish. The Wolverines simply needed to make sure they didn't take the last haymaker on the chin.
They didn't, valiantly victorious ultimately because they couldn't be stopped on offense, and picked off Brian Kelly's team when they desperately needed to. When the smoke cleared from a 41-30 shootout win over the Irish, it was almost too much to comprehend.
"It's 115,109 - that's how many people were there, not to mention the people that were watching on TV," marveled U-M jet engine Devin Gardner. "It's amazing to be able to participate in something like this."
Gardner proved amazing himself, the redshirt junior quarterback connecting on 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns, while loping away on 13 runs for a team-leading 82 yards and another touchdown. He ultimately out-dueled Notre Dame's Tommy Rees (29-for-51, 314 yards, two touchdowns and two big interceptions)
including when it counted most.
Michigan led just 34-30, with 9:15 remaining, after entering the fourth quarter up two touchdowns. Gardner had a hand in the Irish revival, throwing the ultimate oh-no pick six.
But when it came time to finish, he gave the Irish a shillelagh to the teeth.
Gardner drove the Wolverines 75 yards in 10 plays, hitting Drew Dileo on a four-yard slant for the TD that put the Wolverines in control with 4:18 to play. Aided by a pair of key pass interference penalties on the Irish, the drive left Notre Dame desperate.
Their return trip down the field left them dead in the water.
Rees, who helped Notre Dame rack up 410 total yards to Michigan's 460, took the Irish from their own 35 to the Michigan 6. But he fired a ball that U-M cornerback Raymon Taylor kneed into the air, the pigskin tumbling into the hands of Michigan's Blake Countess in the end zone. Countess' second interception of the night left the Irish deader than a chicken with its neck wrung.
"It's always nice to win," U-M coach Brady Hoke assured. "This is such a great rivalry, to be able to be on the right side of it always feels good. It also tells you a lot where you're at when you play early in the year."
In a scintillating see-saw affair before the biggest crowd in college football history, nothing came easy.
Michigan stuck first, when Brendan Gibbons nailed a 44-yard field goal, the Michigan record-breaking 15th straight off his steady left foot.
The Wolverines kept Notre Dame ensconced behind chicken wire on a pair of three-and-outs to start the game, then unleashed a big-play punch in the beak on their second possession. Gardner answered Notre Dame's heavy up-front pressure with a 61-yard touchdown laser to Jeremy Gallon (eight catches, 184 yards, three touchdowns).
Gardner froze ND's defenders with a smooth play-action fake, then gunned down the middle to a wide-open Gallon. The fifth-year senior then spun out of a would-be tackle like a rock out of a sling, racing the rest of the way to the end zone and a 10-0 Michigan lead.
"I was looking to get up field, and they went to strip the ball," Gallon noted. "He spun me around, and I just started running. I saw Jehu Chesson come up and lay a block on somebody, and I just ran in for the touchdown."
The Irish weren't going away, Rees connecting on throws of 12, 22 and 18 yards in taking the Irish from their own 25 to the U-M 4. The Wolverines appeared to hold on a crucial third-and-goal, when Rees' pass tumbled off the hands of running back George Atkinson III. But in keeping with Irish tradition, it careened backwards, right into the outstretched arms of wideout T.J. Jones (nine catches, 94 yards, one TD) for the touchdown, making it 10-7 with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
Moments later, ND's Kyle Brindza nailed a 44-yard field goal of his own, and with 55 seconds gone in the second quarter, the teams stood deadlocked at 10-10.
Just when it looked like the momentum had swung completely the other way, Young 98 turned it up a notch. The new bearer of Tom Harmon's old number hit Gallon for 15- and 22-yard sideline throws, igniting a 75-yard, 13-play touchdown drive. A crucial third-and-goal pass interference call on Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell for grabbing Gallon set the Wolverines up on the ND 3.
Gardner did the rest, taking a shotgun snap and barreling into the end zone for the go-ahead score at the 8:43 mark.
Rees continued carving up the Michigan secondary, hitting throws of 21, 23, and 16 yards. But U-M stalled the drive at its own seven, and Brindza made it 17-13 with a 24-yard field goal with 5:49 left in the half.
Gardner set sail on a 35-yard breakaway run into Notre Dame territory, but back-to-back holding calls on the Wolverines forced Gibbons to step in and lace a 38-yard field goal with 2:01 left in the half, making it 20-13.
The Wolverines were looking to pull away in the offensive tug-of war, and Countess gave the Irish kilts a yank. He picked off a throw by a rolling-out Rees, returning it 30 yards to the ND 23.
Four plays later, Gardner threw just past the goal line, Gallon peeling back off the defender to make a tumbling grab on a 12-yard TD pass. The Wolverines led at the half, 27-13, but the way the Irish were moving, there was no breathing easy.
The Irish marched 90 yards in 12 plays on their opening possession of the second half. Rees eventually connected with tight end Troy Niklas (six catches, 76 yards, one touchdown) on a 20-yard TD toss, clawing his team back to within a touchdown at 27-20.
Gardner fired back with a bazooka, after scrambling for 10 yards on a crucial third-and-eight from his own 24. He gunned a 41-yard bomb to Gallon, then found Gallon on a 13-yard bootleg pass, the fleet receiver barreling in to cap a seven-play, 78-yard drive to put the Wolverines back in control, 34-20.
U-M broke the punch-counterpunch cycle, Taylor drilling DaVaris Daniels for a two-yard loss on a crucial third-and-2 play from the U-M 15. The Irish went for it on fourth down, but Rees' toss under heavy pressure sailed harmlessly to earth in the end zone.
The Wolverines dodged that bullet - then promptly shot themselves in the foot. Gardner, peeling backwards into his own end zone to avoid a heavy Notre Dame rush, fluttered an ill-advised toss to his right, ND lineman Stephon Tuitt making a tumbling interception for a touchdown.
"Man," Gardner agonized. "Coach Al Borges talked to us about the top three causes of interceptions, and one of them is desperately avoiding a sack. That's what I did in my own end zone. It was a horrible decision. But our defense gave us a place to stand, and I told them, I was going to finish. 'You give us a place to stand, and we're going to finish this football game.'"
Ultimately, they did.
Michigan led by a mere touchdown, 34-27, and another skin-crawling finish appeared to be creeping into the night air in Ann Arbor. Brindza added to the drama moments later, nailing a 40-yard field goal to make it 34-30 with 9:15 remaining.
But when it came time to finish, the Wolverines (2-0) send the Irish (1-1) into the night air with a definite chill. As Michigan Stadium shook with pulsating music and stomping celebrants, anything seemed possible.
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