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Gardner outshines Rees as ND misses opportunities

Mike Monaco | Sunday, September 8, 2013

ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Tommy Rees and Devin Gardner both played second fiddle last season. Both, however, stepped in at crucial times to rescue their respective squads. Now, both are first-time sure-fire starters in 2013.
But on Saturday night, under the lights and under the scrutiny of an NCAA record crowd of 115,509, Gardner accounted for 376 yards of total offense, five touchdowns and one (albeit costly) turnover. Rees, meanwhile, tossed for 314 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Give Michigan credit, obviously Devin Gardner played outstanding,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They were the better football team today, but again from my perspective we needed to make a couple more plays offensively.”
The Irish had the opportunities to make those plays. Trailing by 11 late in the fourth quarter, Rees fired to the end zone. His pass was tipped up and intercepted by Michigan junior cornerback Blake Countess, effectively icing the game.
Countess also picked off Rees in the first half. With less than two minutes to play before the intermission, Rees rolled to his left and threw on the move directly into the hands of Countess, who returned it deep inside Irish territory to set up another Michigan score before the half.
“I’d like to have the one throw before the half back, but [Rees] did some really good things,” Kelly said. “I think we feel that there were just one or two throws that could have [resulted in us] putting 44 points on the board.”
While Rees failed to redeem his first-half interception, Gardner responded from his lowest point in the game. After the junior signal-caller’s desperation throwaway pass from his own end zone was caught by Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt for a touchdown, Gardner led the Wolverines on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to put them up 11.
“[Michigan] coach [Brady Hoke] just talked to us about the top-three college interceptions, and one of them is desperately avoiding the sack, and that’s what I did in my own end zone, and it was a horrible decision,” Gardner said.
“I was upset with myself for the mistake. It was a horrible mistake and could have cost us the game, but like I said the defense gave us a place to stand, and I went on and finished it.”
In addition to Gardner’s passing prowess – the Detroit, Mich., native threw for 294 and four touchdowns – he rushed for a touchdown and 82 yards, including a 35-yard carry to the Irish 21-yard line to spur a second-quarter field goal.
“[Michigan] had a good quarterback tonight who made a lot of plays,” Kelly said. “He’s difficult to defend. He can run it, he threw with efficiency, they keep their option principles involved within their structure. They are difficult to defend.”
In the Kelly era, Notre Dame is 11-0 in games in which it does not commit a turnover. The Irish, however, coughed it up for their first two times in 2013 against the Wolverines. Notre Dame had a minus-15 turnover differential in 2011 and finished 8-5. Last year, the Irish were plus-8 in the turnover category and compiled a 12-1 record.
Additionally, Notre Dame finished 2012 70th in the nation in red-zone offense with an 80 percent scoring rate. Against Michigan, the Irish converted three out of five times inside the Michigan 20-yard line.
“I just think we missed opportunities. When we’re in the red zone, we missed opportunities,” Kelly said. “This wasn’t made up, they were real opportunities. We had the right plays on, and we needed to execute better. If we execute those plays when they were called upon, we put two more scores on the board, and this game is over. And we didn’t.”

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu