- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After a weeklong debate about the significance of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry -- national, regional, historic, sporadic, mandatory, dispensable -- Devin Gardner provided an answer Saturday night.
Gardner had completed the best performance of his career on the grandest stage in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a football game (115,109). He had proven himself as a big-game quarterback with four touchdown passes and a touchdown run in Michigan's 41-30 victory, not to mention rebounding from the worst play of his athletic career. He did it in his first game wearing the very un-quarterback-like No. 98 jersey, a tribute to former Michigan star Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner, who was honored before the game.
The magnitude of the moment wasn't lost on the Michigan quarterback, who bounced around the field afterward with childlike enthusiasm, darting from teammate to teammate. But Gardner's joy didn't eclipse his perspective.
"This isn't the game that we want -- the Big Ten championship, the Rose Bowl game -- [but] this is a pretty big game," Gardner said. "... One hundred and fifteen thousand one hundred and nine, that's how many people were there, not to mention the people that were watching on TV, the only game on. It's amazing to be able to participate in something like this, but this isn't the big one that we really want."
The Notre Dame game isn't the apex for Gardner and his Michigan teammates. But it's a starting point, an early gauge for where they are on their desired path to Indianapolis and, eventually, Pasadena.
Last year's South Bend slopfest, which featured six Michigan turnovers, five by quarterback Denard Robinson, set the Wolverines on a course for a season of mistake-filled losses. When adversity struck, Michigan usually wilted. The Wolverines weren't tough enough. They admitted as much throughout the offseason.
Gardner put up nice numbers in the final five games as the starting quarterback, but he couldn't lift Michigan past Ohio State in The Game or South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. His big-game ability -- and really, Michigan's -- was very much in doubt entering Saturday night.
"It's the same thing that we've always known," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He's a damn good player."
So is senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, one of few links between the first and second night games at the Big House. Two years ago against Notre Dame, Gallon had a 64-yard catch that set up the game-winning touchdown strike to Roy Roundtree.
Saturday night, he recorded career highs in receiving yards (184) and touchdown catches (3), becoming the first Michigan player with three scoring grabs since Mario Manningham in 2006.
"I could never imagine me doing something like this," Gallon said. "I could imagine myself just coming out and playing for my team and playing my role as a teammate and as a leader and as a senior on this team."
Gardner could tell immediately the offense had a rhythm against a fast and physical Fighting Irish defense that had kept Michigan out of the end zone last year at Notre Dame Stadium. Gardner pushed all the right buttons in the first half, passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns and adding 50 rush yards and a score. He made sharp decisions, like throwing the ball away under pressure on third-and-10 to keep Michigan in field-goal range.
The new Michigan offense, the one head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges always wanted to run, was in full display.
"Coach Borges is in a groove with his play-calling, we were in a groove as an offense," Gardner said. "We performed to the level Coach Hoke would like."
Gardner made his first bad decision in the third quarter, nearly getting picked off in Michigan territory. He responded with a nifty 10-yard scramble on third-and-8 -- third-down efficiency has quickly become his trademark -- and three plays later found Gallon in the end zone to restore a two-touchdown advantage.
But just as Gardner prepared to put a bow on a signature performance, everything unraveled. Quarterbacks throw pick-sixes. They rarely throw pick-sixes to defensive ends in their own end zone. But that's exactly what happened as Gardner, under heavy duress, short-armed a pass into the flat, the ball looking as if it weighed 50 pounds.
Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt made the diving grab, cutting Michigan's lead to 34-27.
"Coach Borges talks to us about the top three causes of interceptions, and one of them is desperately avoiding a sack," Gardner said. "That's what I did, in my own end zone. It was a horrible decision."
Gardner later told ESPN.com that he remembered a similar play in high school, against Ohio powerhouse Steubenville, when he took a safety.
"This one," he said, "might have been worse."
"No matter how long you've played this game, stuff like that is going to get to you a little bit," Lewan said. "So I went to him. I let him know, 'You're a quarterback for a reason. You're the Michigan quarterback. You're the reason why we're in this game.'"
Unlike Robinson the year before, Gardner didn't let one mistake turn into others. He led Michigan on a 10-play, 75-yard drive -- helped by two debatable pass-interference calls on Notre Dame -- and fired his fourth touchdown pass to Drew Dileo with 4:18 remaining.
A Michigan defense that was far from dominant then sealed the win with a takeaway: cornerback Blake Countess' second interception of the night.
"That's what we talked about all summer and all winter, fighting and finishing, because it's something we didn't do last year," Gardner said. "Today, we fought and we finished."
Added Lewan: "We're starting to get it."
Afterward, Gardner and Gallon sat side by side, the quarterback wearing 98 to honor Harmon and the receiver donning No. 21 in tribute to Desmond Howard, another Michigan star and Heisman Trophy winner. The historical significance of Saturday night's win, like everything at Michigan, wasn't lost on either player, as the Wolverines close the book on their home games against Notre Dame, at least for now.
It mattered to them. But other games will matter more.
"We still have unfinished business in the season," Gardner said. "This isn't the game. It's only the second game of the year.
"We have much bigger goals."