Devin Gardner Will Be Difference Maker for Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2013

ANN ARBOR, MI - AUGUST 31: Devin Gardner #12 of the Michigan Wolverines runs for a first quarter touchdown past Louis Palmer #56 of the Central Michigan Chippewas at Michigan Stadium on August 31, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It was the forgotten blemish on Notre Dame's perfect season last year, and a game that (apparently) went unremembered by those voting for the NCAA 14 video game cover. When Michigan met the Irish in South Bend, then-Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson handed them the victory.

Michigan fans haven't forgotten, though, and returning back to the Big House in 2013, they are confident Devin Gardner will help them avenge that loss in the final home game of a much-discussed "rivalry."

Gardner started last year at wide receiver, and led the Wolverines with three catches for 40 yards against Notre Dame. If it sounds ludicrous for three catches and 40 yards to lead a Michigan team in receiving, that's because it is. But Robinson was that bad. He finished the evening with 138 yards on 13 completions, zero touchdowns and four interceptions.

That last part was, obviously, the most malignant. Turnovers plagued Michigan in last year's game with the Irish, staking it to a three-point loss despite out-gaining them by 60 yards. It was an ugly offensive affair, on both sides of the football, and ugly offensive affairs are often won by the team with less turnovers.

Not the team whose highlight reel was set to Benny Hill:

Robinson was the key culprit in that game, and with both teams bringing back enough key characters from 2012, Gardner should be the keystone player in this one. Not only will he need to create offense where last year there was none, but he will need to keep Notre Dame's defense from making big plays.

No matter how good Tommy Rees looked last week at Temple (or last year against Michigan), the Wolverines can expect a good performance from their defense. A home crowd as raucous as Michigan's typically affects that side of the ball more than the other, and they have enough talent to shut down Notre Dame's shaky offense.

If the Irish rely, once again, on turnovers as their main source of point-scoring, Gardner is the player they will target. He's talented beyond his years, and his six-game stint as a starter has been successful; but, in the grand scheme of things, Gardner is still inexperienced. Notre Dame and it's All-American defensive line, led by Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, will aim to exploit that.

Gardner has thrown an interception in every one of his six starts at quarterback. One might not be enough to undo the Wolverines, but last week against Central Michigan, he had his first two-interception game. Michigan rolled to a 50-point win, but those picks were cause for genuine concern—especially given Week 2's opponent.

If he plays the best game of his career, Gardner can almost certainly lead Michigan to a win. But even if he doesn't, there are ways he can make a difference.

He can't be overzealous in his quest to dominate the game. That's how mistakes are made.

He needs to pick and choose his spots to take chances.

If Gardner shows poise and discretion beyond his years, it will make all the difference in Ann Arbor. If not—if Notre Dame turns this into a second straight slop-fest—it would still make all the difference.

Just not the one Michigan is hoping for.