ANN ARBOR - The showdown between a pair of college football’s vaunted programs - and a pair of noted rivals - became a coming-out party of sorts for Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon.
When it came to pursuing national prominence, the Michigan football team took a substantial step Saturday night with a 41-30 win over Notre Dame at Michigan Stadium.
“This series between Michigan and Notre Dame, it’s bragging rights for life," Michigan captain and left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "That’s what we’ve got. It wasn’t perfect but that’s what this team’s about.”
In front of an NCAA-record 115,109 at Michigan Stadium, the win didn’t come without its tense moments, including a moment that tested the No. 17 Wolverines (2-0) and could have changed the course of the game.
Ahead by 14 points early in the fourth quarter, Gardner dropped back into the end zone from the Irish 16-yard-line in an attempt to find an open receiver. Hurried by a lineman, Gardner’s wobbly pass ended up in the hands of Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt, whose touchdown cut Michigan’s lead to 34-27 with 12:06 left.
The Wolverines, however, responded by holding No. 14 Notre Dame (1-1) to Kyle Brindza's field goal on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive, then capitalized on a pair of defensive pass interference penalties in the game’s final seven minutes, which set up Drew Dileo’s 4-yard touchdown with 4:18 left.
Then, with Notre Dame driving in an attempt to again cut Michigan’s lead, Blake Countess intercepted Irish quarterback Tommy Rees in the end zone. Rees' pass ricocheted off Michigan defender and into the air before Countess caught the ball and ended Notre Dame's final drive.
"This was a game that, from our end, I felt we missed some opportunities," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose team also trailed by 14 points at halftime. "Those could have given us the opportunity to win football games. We had two opportunities to score ... We’ve got to make those plays.
"It’s one of those games you’ve got to win. We weren’t able to come up with the key plays."
Michigan did. Instead of leaning on a defense that held the Irish to 96 yards on 19 carries, Michigan allowed its offensive weapons to flourish.
Gardner wasn’t just noticeable because of the unique number he wore for the first time as a Wolverine - he’ll wear No. 98 for the remainder of his career at Michigan, in honor of 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon - but because he commanded Michigan’s offense and finished 21 for 33 passing for 294 yards and a four touchdowns.
Gallon, meanwhile, had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns to help the Wolverines take a 10-0 lead less than six minutes into the game.
"He’s a very, very tough kid," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of Gallon. "He finds the seams and creases, and he blocks, and catching the ball is important for him, but he loves to block. How he comes to work every day and how he competes are his strengths."
Aided by a pass-interference call against Irish safety KeiVarae Russell, Gardner broke a 10-10 tie midway through the second quarter with his first rushing touchdown. After Brindza and Brendan Gibbons’ traded field goals, Michigan took a 27-13 lead into halftime on Gallon’s second touchdown, a 12-yard pass from Gardner with 1:09 left in the half.
Notre Dame cut Michigan’s lead to 27-20 with less than five minutes left in the third on Troy Niklas’ 20-yard touchdown catch, and after Gallon re-opened Michigan’s lead to 34-20 three minutes later, Tuitt’s interception stood after review and cut Michigan’s lead to 34-27.
Brindza’s third field goal brought the Irish within four points with 9:15 left in the fourth, and the Wolverines’ ensuing drive set up Gardner’s short touchdown pass to Dileo, which capped off a 10-play, 75-yard push and ultimately gave Michigan its 24th all-time win over Notre Dame.
And the end result likely vaulted Gardner and the Wolverines into a new spotlight.
"To be able to be on the right side of this, it feels good," Hoke said. "It tells you a lot about where we’re at."