In dying days of rivalry, Michigan and Notre Dame put on a show
ANN ARBOR -- Details tend to get a little blurry as last call nears in college towns.
Michigan fans found themselves simultaneously toasting the Devin Gardner era and pouring a few ounces of their favorite beverage out for the final local installment of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry for the near future.
While the backdrop heading into Saturday night revolved around the drama, misinformation and blame game for this series coming to a temporary halt, the on-field tension reminded everyone why we cared so much in the first place.
In the end, Michigan's throwback performance -- led by Gardner wearing a leather-helmet era No. 98 -- showcased the resplendent future for a program re-kindling its old-school ethos. And the victory came in a fitting blur of offensive explosion, critical penalties and a garish turnover that gave the record crowd of 115,109 reminders of why these games resonated so much for so long.
"I don't even know," Gardner said when asked how he'll remember this game years from now. "I can't explain how I'm feeling right now. How it felt to take that knee. I can't even tell you."
Gardner threw for four touchdowns, ran for another and became the latest star in a series that helped launch fabled players like Desmond Howard and Rocket Ismail to stardom.
Most importantly, however, Gardner showed the composure to overcome a horrific decision that let Notre Dame back in the game in the early fourth quarter.
It's not often that after a night accounting for five touchdowns that a quarterback's signature play is a garish mistake. But when Gardner scrambled and flung a ball aimlessly that Irish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt deftly picked off for an touchdown five yards deep in the end zone, Notre Dame crept back to 34-27. (You don't see this line in a box score very often -- "Intercepted by TUITT at the MICH0, TUITT return 0 yards to the MICH0 TOUCHDOWN").
Notre Dame then cut the Michigan lead to 34-30 with less than nine minutes to go, but Gardner iced the game with a clock-gobbling 10-play drive he capped with a touchdown to Drew Dileo.
Two pass interference penalties pushed Michigan home on that drive, and the arguments over the validity of those will certainly last long into the morning hours here.
But the most important thing to emerge Saturday night came from national rollout of Michigan's new identity. In Brady Hoke's third season, Michigan has rounded into the pro-style, play-action, smashmouth team around which Hoke molded the identity of his program. This is a throwback unit that, following the lead of All-American tackle Taylor Lewan, mauls people at the line of scrimmage. His fingerprints were all over Tuitt's dismal night, as he finished with no tackles -- either solo or assisted -- a stunning total for a defensive lineman considered just below Jadeveon Clowney in the NFL Draft hierarchy.
The Denard Robinson era will be viewed in retrospect as a fun anomaly, the final vestiges of the failed Rich Rodriguez era.
"This was more like what we want to do," Hoke said.
Gardner, wearing the old-school No. 98 in honor of 1940 Hesiman winner Tom Harmon, appropriately brought Michigan's offense back to the future. Gardner emerged as the perfect marriage of the old-school dropback quarterback and the modern elusive quarterback, a hybrid that showcased what the future of the Michigan program will look like for years to come. There were elements of the pistol and some designed quarterback runs to exploit Gardner's athleticism, but make no mistake -- Michigan is a straight smashmouth unit that would crease a smile on Bo Schembechler's face.
Three of Gardner's touchdowns went to star receiver and best friend Jeremy Gallon, who finished the night with 184 yards and eight catches. He flashed enough sizzle that would make Howard, whose No. 21 he wears as a tribute this year, nod approvingly.
"He's like a little bulldog, man," Gardner said of the 5-foot-8-inch Gallon. "We've worked so hard since I've got here. ... We're finally getting a chance to display it."
Let's face it, the Wolverines running a spread felt more awkward than Brent Musberger interviewing Eminem. And the notion of these two teams not playing on a September Saturday on one of the dying days of summer feels just as weird.
What's also blurry are the details of why this rivalry is headed on hiatus, and where it's headed in the future.
It's likely that Michigan and Notre Dame will play again after the final game of this contract in South Bend next year. But it will never be the annual delight entrenched in the early part of the football season that we've grown accustomed to. What will likely emerge is the occasional home-and-home series starting again around 2020. A few years on. A few years off.
While Notre Dame has been vilified for being the instigator of the end of the rivalry, both teams appeared to have contributed significantly.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick bristled that money was behind Notre Dame's decision.
"If I wanted to maximize money," he said in a phone conversation earlier this week, "I would keep the Michigan game. On a pure economic basis, it's undoubtedly our most profitable football game. That's not a factor in this."
The reason Notre Dame chose to pause -- not end -- this series is that the contract allowed them to do it immediately. It had nothing to do with Brian Kelly calling this a "regional rivalry" or Brady Hoke saying the Irish were "chickening" out of the series. The contracts with Michigan State and Purdue weren't as easy to wriggle out of, so the Irish dropped Michigan for a few seasons to accommodate its new ACC scheduling agreement, which takes up five games every year. With Notre Dame insisting on playing its traditional rivals -- USC, Stanford and Navy -- some games had to give. Michigan went first, but only because Michigan officials toyed with the contract language a few years ago allowing the teams to pause the deal.
If the Irish are being blamed for killing the series, Michigan set up the execution.
"In essence, the substitution I'm making for the next six years is really Texas for Michigan," Swarbrick said, referencing a four-game series with the Longhorns that starts in 2015. "That has to do with getting us to the Southwest. I've got plenty of Midwest presence. If I say to myself, is Notre Dame at an advantage by being in Texas or Ann Arbor, it's more of an advantage being in Austin."
They'll be grumbling about that at Rick's, Scorekeepers and the Blue Leprechaun for the next decade, as the blurred lines of realignment have cost college football one of its marquee events.
Last call for the near future for the Irish and Wolverines comes in on Sept. 6, 2014.
Before they flip the lights on and send everyone home, expect Notre Dame and Michigan to put on one more show.