by John Vannie
Michigan built a 27-13 halftime lead behind the running and passing of Devin Gardner and held off a comeback attempt by Notre Dame to defeat the Irish 41-30 on Saturday night before a Michigan Stadium record crowd of over 115,000. Gardner threw four touchdown passes and ran for another score, while Jeremy Gallon had 184 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Notre Dame twice closed to within seven points in the second half, but Gardner’s ability to gain key first downs at inopportune moments proved to be the difference.
The offenses dominated play throughout the evening, but the Wolverines were far more balanced. Tommy Rees threw 53 passes and 314 yards for the Irish, who managed only 105 yards on just 18 rushing attempts. Michigan gained 166 yards on 39 carries while Gardner hit 21 of his 33 tosses for 294 yards.
Notre Dame was sluggish at the start and quickly fell behind 10-0 as Gallon hauled in a pass over the middle, broke two tackles and dashed into the end zone from 61 yards. Rees heated up to bring back the visitors, who tied the game at ten early in the second quarter when Kyle Brindza drilled a 44 yard field goal. The Wolverines crept back to take a 20-13 lead shortly before halftime when disaster struck the Irish. Rees threw a floater off his back foot under pressure and Michigan’s Blake Countess intercepted to set up another Gardner to Gallon score.
Following intermission, a long drive by Notre Dame closed the gap to 27-20 with five minutes left in the third quarter. Tight end Troy Niklas caught the ball on a crossing route and dove into the end zone to complete a 21-yard play. The Irish refused a holding penalty on the next Wolverine series to set up a third and eight at the Michigan 24. Gardner scrambled for nine yards and a key first down, then tossed yet another touchdown pass to Gallon just four plays later to put his team up by two scores.
Once again, Notre Dame came marching back, but the drive stalled on a failed fourth down pass in the red zone. Gardner made his first and only mistake on the next series, however, as he attempted a desperation throw from his end zone with Irish players hanging onto him. Stephon Tuitt picked off the wounded duck in the end zone to bring Notre Dame within 34-27 at the 12:06 mark. The Irish got a break when a timeout by Michigan to challenge the score with the replay official negated a missed extra point attempt. After Tuitt’s score was upheld, Brindza booted it through for the seven point deficit.
Notre Dame got the ball back near midfield moments later after a poor Wolverine punt, but could manage only a field goal to trail by 34-30 with 9:15 remaining. Fitz Toussaint broke the hearts and backs of Notre Dame on the next series with a 22 yard run and a 26 yard reception to bring Michigan into scoring territory. The Irish were then victimized by two third down pass interference penalties to keep the drive alive, and Gardner converted with a four yard toss to Drew Dileo for the clinching score with 4:18 left. Rees had one more drive left in him, but Countess grabbed a deflected pass in the end zone to secure the win.
The Irish appeared to have success running the ball, but the inability of the defense to contain Gardner kept them in a continuous hole. The difference in the game was his ability to escape pressure and make positive plays, while Rees was not effective when forced to move in the pocket and throw on the run.
Let’s review the pregame questions regarding the keys to the outcome.
Which team will be able to run most effectively? Notre Dame ran it well at times, but not often enough. Michigan and Gardner were ahead throughout and were able to out the Irish by a significant margin.
Will weak special teams and a balky kicking game cost the Irish a victory? Special teams performed well throughout. Brindza nailed all of his chances and George Atkinson chipped in with a respectable kickoff return.
Which quarterback will throw the ball into the wrong hands? Both threw interceptions that resulted in scores for the opponent, but Gardner did not make a mistake the rest of the night.
Can Notre Dame’s defensive pursuit contain Gardner? Ummm, that would be a definitive “No”.
Will Rees be able to continue his downfield passing success against a much better secondary? Tommy made some good throws, but Michigan would not let the Irish receivers get behind them for long gains. The three fourth quarter drives for Notre Dame ended on two incompletions and an interception.
What Brent Musburger drinking game will take the sting out of a loss for the losing team’s fans? It appeared that Brent was already in fine form by the opening kickoff, and he even managed to confuse Gardner with Denard Robinson. The big winner on the night had to be Eminem, who visited with Kirk and Brent after a halftime musical performance. That dude was three sheets to the wind.
It’s back to work for Notre Dame, who must prepare for another road trip next week by fixing a porous defense. There is sufficient time and talent on board to get this season back on a path for success, but the frustration of this loss will continue to sting for quite a while.