ANN ARBOR, Mich. – They'd poured 115,109 people into the Big House. They gave them maize shakers and blue wristbands. Golden domes were across the way, for the last time. Eminem was up in the press box, for the first time. Fighter jets roared overhead. Beyonce was on the big screen.
Once-staid Michigan runs itself like some kind of big-top circus these days, anything to keep fans from staying home and watching on HD. It's quite the production.
Devin Gardner understands all of that. He embraces it, covets it and thrives on it, even. He's a dynamic athlete, but that's just part of it. He's smart, well-spoken, polite and even ends TV interviews with "Go Blue" – Extend the brand! Saturday night was showtime in primetime and he was the main attraction, the star quarterback they put in a jersey with a nose guard's numeral – No. 98 – to honor Tom Harmon, Michigan's 1940 Heisman winner.
Give Gardner the biggest, brightest spotlight imaginable and he'll start ringing up touchdowns all over the field, like he did against Notre Dame for the first three quarters, giving all those fans what they'd come to see.
Yet there in the fourth quarter, with a two-touchdown lead, game about to be put on ice, party already raging all over the place, Gardner started scrambling from the Irish pass rush. He found himself in his own end zone, about to be dropped for a safety. On an otherwise brilliant night of play and against all wisdom he tossed up a weak floater to no one and nowhere in particular.
Before it could harmlessly land – where it still should've been flagged for intentional grounding – Notre Dame's freak of nature athlete Stephon Tuitt, a 322-pound defensive end, made a diving, finger-tip interception for the touchdown.
The whole place went numb. This was as bad of a play as you'll ever see, from a guy who was as good as Michigan could've dreamed. Suddenly, Notre Dame was within a touchdown. Momentum had swung. The energy floated right out of the place.
This … this was a disaster.
"Horrible," Gardner said. "It could've cost us the game."
It didn't, of course. Michigan won, 41-30, capping this perfect night. And in the end, Gardner could joke about his pick-six to a defensive lineman and flash his big smile, mostly because of what he did right after that play.
After staring briefly at Tuitt, seemingly in disbelief, he started jogging off the field. He was full of fury. "I was pretty upset with myself for the mistake."
And then he realized that this moment, more than the music and the light shows and even the big glorious plays he'd already made was going to determine how the night might be remembered here. That's the packaging. This is the purpose.
This, he realized, was when all eyes were really on him. Not the six figures in the grandstands or the millions on the other side of a television. They didn't matter anymore. This wasn't about marketing. It was about the dozens of guys in uniforms on his sideline. It was those people and only those people that counted.
"I just remembered that everybody is going to look to me for confirmation," Gardner said.
So he didn't pout. He didn't panic. He didn't do anything but exactly what makes the junior from Detroit such a special player. He moved on, full steam and full confidence ahead. Worst play ever? Yeah, whatever.
"I just made sure that I stayed level," he said.
The Wolverines were held in check on their next drive, but that didn't keep. Michigan's defense held Notre Dame to a field goal and then Gardner got back in a groove. He led a 10-play, 75-yard clock-draining touchdown drive to clinch in. A series later he was being held in the air by a lineman, one finger pointing in the air as the clock ran itself out.
"Our defense gave us a place to stand," Gardner said. "And I told them I was going to finish. They said they believed in me and that's what happened. We finished the football game."
Here at Notre Dame's much-hyped final game in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future, Gardner finished with five touchdowns (four passing) and 376 yards of total offense (294 through the air). It was a memorable performance in a series full of them. He was the undeniable MVP of the game, if only because he shook off almost becoming the goat. All by himself.
"When he came off the field I didn't need to say a word to him," coach Brady Hoke said, and that may be the most valuable takeaway from the night. Gardner has a world of ability and Michigan (2-0 and with the schedule opening up in front of them) has a promising season in front of it.
Mistakes, even horrible mistakes, happen. Getting past them is everything, especially from a guy who was a wide receiver in this game just one year ago. He conveyed such poise and confidence though, that not even his coach was worried about him.
"I'm a quarterback," Gardner said. "I have to respond after adversity."
Afterwards, he couldn't stop smiling. He knew the exact attendance – "largest crowd ever," he noted. He knew the meaning of beating Notre Dame. He was in awe of his jersey switch – he'll wear 98 for the rest of his career now.
Harmon was both a football and basketball star around here. He once beat Ohio State 40-0 in Columbus by racking up three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, kicking four extra points, picking off three passes and booting three punts to an average of 50 yards. The Michigan media relations people claim his play was so incredible even Ohio State fans gave him a standing ovation.
And that isn't even the part Gardner sounded most impressed by.
"He fought for our country," Gardner noted.
"It's an amazing feeling," he continued. "He was a great person and a great athlete and that's what I aspire to. For the Harmon family to say I'm worthy to wear this jersey, that's amazing to me that they see me as that type of person."
They can trick up the game-day experience all they want, make it more exciting, make it more memorable, make a little more fun. No one's complaining. In the end though, the attraction here at Michigan, the attraction all over college football, is the same as it has ever been. You want tradition? It's watching men like Devin Gardner play on the field and carry themselves off it afterwards in the same manner as they always did. Harmon was nicknamed "Ole 98" and the new version would likely win his approval.
In the end it's about a college kid making about the worst mistake a quarterback can make, and then just shaking it off in front of his buddies and laughing about it in the end.
"I want to thank my entire team for believing in me," he said.
That, more than anything, will bring the customers back. Always.
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