Michigan won handily. Notre Dame did, too. And as Brady Hoke spoke at dusk on the first Saturday of college football, their confrontation beneath the lights loomed only one week in the distance.
“I didn’t really think about it until we were done, in the locker room,” the Michigan head coach said after his team’s 59-9 thrashing of Central Michigan. “I think it gets you ready, because young kids have played in front of 112,000 people. I think there’ll be a few more thousand next week. The atmosphere on campus, the atmosphere in Ann Arbor — I would think — would be electric.
“It’s the last time Notre Dame’s going to come to Michigan for a while. I would think that’s got significance to it on both parts.”
Now that Michigan and Notre Dame (a 28-6 victor over Temple) held serve in Week 1, they will meet next Saturday under familiar circumstances: The winner will improve to 2-0 and claim a top-10 national ranking, the usual prize when these Midwestern frenemies see one another.
It has been one of the most mutually beneficial rivalries in sports, situated early enough in the year that renewals have given rise to Heisman candidacies and national-title narratives. There was Tim Brown in ’87 and Desmond Howard in ’91. Fans on both sides still remember Rocket Ismail for his kick returns in ’89. Denard Robinson became a sensation in South Bend three years ago … and then helped build the legend of Manti Te’o with two interceptions last year.
But that is about to end. Notre Dame dropped Michigan from its schedule because of a new agreement with the ACC. The old foes have Saturday at Michigan Stadium, next September in South Bend, and then see-ya-when-we-see-ya.
If anything, that will kick our mythmaking into overdrive. We need one more Michigan-Notre Dame icon, and we need him now.
So … any nominees?
The quarterbacks, of course.
Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees was (statistically) better in Week 1, completing 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns against the Owls. But Michigan’s Devin Gardner is more dynamic, despite throwing two interceptions Saturday in what Hoke described as “a good game” but not “elite or excellent or anything like that.”
Both Rees and Gardner played in last year’s Notre Dame victory over the Wolverines. Neither was the starting quarterback. Rees relieved an ineffective Everett Golson and scored the only touchdown in a 13-6 slog. Gardner, who had been stuck behind Robinson on the depth chart at quarterback, was Michigan’s leading receiver: three catches, 40 yards. Now the big stage is unquestionably theirs.
Gardner started four games in place of the injured Robinson last year, but Saturday was his first game since officially receiving the keys to college football’s winningest program. Apart from the first-half interceptions, he alternated between proficient game management and dazzling ad libs outside the pocket. He passed for a touchdown. He ran for two more.
“I feel like I was pretty efficient — getting us in the right plays, making the throws when they’re there, making opportunities for myself when things break down,” said Gardner, who finished with 162 passing yards and 52 more on the ground. “I feel like I did well in those aspects. I’ve just got to take the turnovers away. I feel like those were ‘rust’ throws. I feel like this first game was a good opportunity to knock the rust off, because I’m pretty sure everybody knows the test we have next weekend.
“We’ll be ready.”
Al Borges, the U-M offensive coordinator, is said to favor a pro-style scheme. But Gardner is not a pro-style quarterback. (He’s not a true read-option quarterback, either.) He appears more comfortable out of the shotgun than under center. He scrambles to create space. He throws on the run. He fakes and bootlegs with aplomb.
In the pocket … well … that’s where that’s where both picks originated. But Gardner became more poised as the day wore on, notably standing tall amid pressure to deliver a 17-yard strike to Jeremy Jackson on the opening play of the second half.
“He’s athletic,” Hoke said. “Sometimes I’m crossing my fingers when I see him out there being athletic. He had a couple decisions — one for sure — (where) he should have probably made a better decision. But at the same time, he’s got a lot of confidence in his abilities. You like that. I’d rather have a quarterback that has that confidence than a guy you have to keep feeding all the time.”
Hoke probably could have offered a similar assessment of Robinson at various points during the past two seasons. But Gardner is different. When Robinson’s receivers were covered — or on the many designed runs called for him — he darted ahead like a tailback. Gardner gallops, moving like a long jumper on approach.
“Denard would, I guess, just go — straight, just use his speed,” Michigan tackle Michael Schofield observed. “Devin is shifting, shifting — keep his eyes downfield (to) see if he can make that big play that way. He’s got those long strides.”
Notre Dame beat Michigan last year in large part because the Irish kept Robinson hemmed into the pocket. (He cooperated with five turnovers.) The team that is 2-0 by this time next week could hinge on whether the Irish can frustrate Gardner in the same way. Or maybe Rees will do his best Rick Mirer and enter Notre Dame lore.
Whatever happens, we’ll be watching. Once these teams stop playing, the legends will be a little harder to find.