By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – Desperately trying to avoid being sacked for a safety deep in his own end zone, Devin Gardner tossed the football toward a teammate.
Interception. Touchdown. A 14-point cushion shrank to just a one-score margin.
Had Michigan lost that game, its final meeting with Notre Dame in the Big House for the foreseeable future, Gardner’s performance might have been defined by that one big mistake.
As it turned out, the continued resilience of the Wolverines allowed Gardner to be recognized for all the good he did instead, completing 21 passes for 294 and four touchdowns. He also amassed 82 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Gardner had shown flashes of impressive play before, but with the Irish as such a meaningful opponent, with ESPN College GameDay in attendance, it was a big step toward showing that Gardner is the real deal.
Of course, that did not surprise Gardner’s teammates.
“It told me the same thing that we’ve always known,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “Devin’s a damn good player.”
Even so, Gardner knew he had gotten himself in trouble with that interception, but he did not panic.
“I just always remember that everybody’s going to look to me for confirmation that we’ll be all right, so I just try to make sure that I stay level,” Gardner said. “I was pretty upset with myself for the mistake. It was a horrible mistake and could have cost us the game.”
The Wolverines, though, say their confidence in their quarterback never wavered. Several of them, from both sides of the ball, approached Gardner after the pick to remind him they had his back.
“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing this game, stuff like that’s going to get to you a little bit,” Lewan said, “so I went up to him. I let him know that, ‘You’re our quarterback for a reason. You’re the Michigan quarterback. You’re the reason why we’re in this game.’” And I just gave him that pep talk, but I don’t think he really needed it. Devin knew what he was doing, and I was proud of him.”
In addition to a great day on the field, Gardner received a significant honor off it. The Wolverines honored the late Tom Harmon as their last Michigan Football Legend. Harmon, who played in the late 1930s, was known as an electrifying player on both sides of the ball and who later became a war hero (a pilot), married a movie star and eventually broadcast football games.and Gardner was chosen to wear Harmon’s number, 98, and he will do so for the rest of his career.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Gardner said. “I’m pretty sure you guys know the history and all the great things he did on the field, but he did a lot of great things off the field. He was a great person, and a great athlete, and that’s what I aspire to be. I didn’t even know that he even played two years of varsity basketball in college, so that’s just the ultimate athlete and a great person. He fought for our country.
“So just for our coach and the Harmon family to be able to say that I’m worthy of wearing his jersey, it’s amazing for me that they see me as that type of person,” Gardner added.
Of course, all Gardner’s success Saturday would have been far more unlikely had not Michigan’s young interior linemen been able to hold their own against Notre Dame’s vaunted defensive line, which includes two players on the Maxwell Award watch list, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
“Neutralize probably might be the right word, but at the same time they had success too,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. “I think the three interior guys, they take a lot of pride, and I think Taylor [Lewan] and Mike [Schofield] have really taught those guys well, [offensive line coach] Darrell Funk has. They just – good fundamentals and really wanted to finish every block.”
Lewan said the youth on the line did not matter, that those players are expected to live up to the same standards that everyone else is.
“You play Michigan football, you’re expected to play like a Michigan offensive lineman,” Lewan said. “Guys like [seven-time NFL Pro Bowl selection] Steve Hutchinson and [former first-round NFL draft pick Steve Everitt being there tonight, watching those guys, those are the names they have to live up to, and that’s how you’ve got to play. Nothing was perfect. No one played perfect tonight, but at the end of the day, they got it done.”