ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As the lights turned on for just the second time in Michigan Stadium’s history, the proverbial lights turned off at the Big House as far as the Notre Dame-Michigan series is concerned. Behind an illustrious performance from junior quarterback Devin Gardner, the Wolverines scored their second-highest total in series history to deny the Irish 41-30.
With 294 passing yards and four touchdowns, Devin Gardner's heroics led the Wolverines to their fourth win in five attempts against the Irish.
In front of an NCAA-record 115,109 fans, and on a night when Gardner switched to No. 98 to honor Michigan legend Tom Harmon, the Wolverines (2-0) answered each Irish comeback attempt to claim their seventh with in the last eight matchups at Michigan Stadium. Gardner’s 294 yards and four touchdowns — of which fifth-year wide receiver Jeremy Gallon caught 184 and three, respectively — torched the Irish in Notre Dame’s first regular-season loss since Nov. 2011.
“We knew that Gardner is certainly a very difficult quarterback to defend,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We also knew that offensively that we’re in a position where we need to score more points. I didn’t think this was going to be like last year (a 13-6 Notre Dame win). … He’s difficult to defend. He can run it, he threw with efficiency, they keep their option principles involved within their structure. They’re difficult to defend.”
Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the second straight week to lead an offense tasked with matching Gardner’s proficiency. Two costly interceptions and missed opportunities in the red zone spelt doom for Notre Dame (1-1).
“I thought Tommy obviously would like to have the one throw before the half back, but he did some really good things,” Kelly said. “I think he feels like there were one or two throws there that could’ve put 44 points on the board. Really, really close. … Close, but not good enough. We just needed to make a couple more plays.”
Michigan seized a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but two quick Notre Dame scores tied the contest. With the Irish trailing 20-13 and less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Rees committed the cardinal sin of scrambling and throwing across his body. Michigan redshirt sophomore Blake Coutness intercepted the pass and the Gardner-to-Gallon connection reached the end zone four plays later to propel the Wolverines to a 27-13 halftime lead.
“There were a number of [missed opportunities],” Rees said. “I’ve got to take accountability for some of those missed opportunities and the throws you want to have back and plays you want to have back, but it starts with me and I’ve got to do better to give the team a better chance to win the game and I take full accountability for that.”
After the teams each scored a touchdown in the third quarter, Kelly gambled on fourth-and-four from the Michigan 17 early in the final period. Rees’ throw fell out of the reach of senior wide receiver TJ Jones to hand the ball to the Michigan offense.
“It felt like at that time that we needed to score a touchdown,” Kelly said. “Kicking three at that time was like laying up when you needed a birdie. I felt like we needed to go for it [because of] the sense and the feel with the time in the game.”
Down 34-20, Notre Dame’s fortunes appeared to shift when Gardner made a costly error — his only of the contest — when he tried to toss an ill-advised pass out of the end zone to avoid a sack. The ball fell into the outstretched arms of junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt to narrow the deficit to seven points.
After an Irish defensive stop and field goal to make it a 34-30 game, Michigan promptly responded with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that culminated with a four-yard reception by senior Drew Dileo. The drive, aided by a pair of defensive pass interference calls in the red zone, deflated Notre Dame’s comeback attempt in a performance that did not at all resemble the 2012 unit that led the Irish to the national championship game. The highest point total allowed by the Irish defense in the 2012 regular season was Pittsburgh’s 26 in triple overtime.
“Obviously it’s frustrating to lose like that,” fifth-year inside linebacker Dan Fox said. “We hold ourselves to a higher standard than what we performed to tonight.
“I think it was a lot of things [that went wrong]. It could be anything from missed assignments to missed tackles.”
Michigan appeared to be on the brink of pulling away when it received the ball to start the second half with a 27-13 lead. The Wolverines’ opening drive stalled past midfield and ended on junior linebacker Ishaq Williams’ first-career sack. After Matt Wile’s punt backed Notre Dame up at its own 10-yard line, the Irish offense responded in resounding fashion with a 12-play, 90-yard drive that culminated in a 20-yard reception by junior tight end Troy Niklas to make it 27-20.
But each Irish jab finished with a Wolverine counterpunch. This time, Michigan covered 78 yards in seven plays as Gallon snared his career-high third touchdown three plays after pulling in a 41-yard Gardner heave.
Still, despite the defense surrendering 41 points and 460 yards of total offense, Kelly said the missed opportunities on offense led to Notre Dame’s demise.
“I just think we missed opportunities to score in the red zone that were real opportunities,” he said. “These weren’t made up, these were real opportunities that we had the right plays on that we needed to execute better. If we execute those plays when they were called upon, we put two more scores on the board and this game is over. We didn’t and I just felt like given all the circumstances of the game, this is an easier press conference to have if we executed a couple more plays in the red zone.”
After the game, the players dismissed the notion that they expected everything would turn out fine because of the 2012 regular-season magic.
“I don’t think it was something like that,” said Jones, who caught nine passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. “I think however many months we got off from last season, it’s hard to remember those games. It’s hard to remember what it’s like to fight through those hard situations and for a lot of our younger players that haven’t played that much, they don’t know what it feels like to be in those situations.”
Kelly and the Irish now find themselves in an unfamiliar position after losing a regular-season contest for the first time since falling 28-14 at Stanford in Nov. 2011. At 1-1, Notre Dame travels to scuffling Purdue (the Boilermakers lost 42-7 to Cincinnati in the season opener and survived a 20-14 scare against Indiana State on Saturday) next week to attempt to right the ship.
“We’ve got to be smarter and more disciplined,” Kelly said. “I told our football team that we’re not going to get into all the specifics right now. Losing is losing. But we’re going to go back to work … with the emphasis in practice on a more disciplined approach to everything. We’ve got to tighten up everything, seven days a week, 24 hours a day and they understand what I mean.”