Whether faced with chaos off the edge or was blessed with open lanes, the junior triggerman thrived, creating first downs with his legs, his arm, and often at the expense of a flailing would-be Irish tackler.
If not for an unconscionable error that gave Notre Dame late life, Gardner would have pitched the college football rivalry equivalent of a perfect game.
The largest-ever crowd to watch a football game saw a two-man show led by Gardner and his sidekick, senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, whose career-day concluded with eight receptions, 184 yards, and three crippling touchdowns against an Irish secondary purportedly among the nation's best.
But it wasn't the defensive effort that most displeased Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
"I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could have given us the opportunity to win this football game," Kelly said. "Take everything that happened, all the situations, you can analyze, over-analyze, pick through it. I felt like we had two opportunities to score -- we have to make those plays.
"This is one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us. We just came up short in a couple of key plays. One of those games you gotta win and we weren't' able to come up with the key plays offensively."
They didn't come up with many key plays defensively, either, save for a stunning interception in the end zone by junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The 6'6" 320-plus pounder went to the ground to pick off an ill-advised flailing throw by Gardner who was spun to the end zone turf by seniors Austin Collinsworth and Prince Shembo.
The diving play by Tuitt brought the Irish to within seven, 34-27 at the 12:06 mark of the fourth quarter. Notre Dame earned its best shot at its first lead of the contest one series later, stopping Michigan on three plays and gaining position near mid-field thanks to a shanked punt.
But the Wolverines defense stiffened in close and forced Kelly's offense to settle for a field goal and 34-30 deficit with still more than nine minutes to play.
Michigan put the game on ice on the ensuing drive -- aided by a pair of pass interference penalties inside the Irish red zone -- a 10-play, 75-yard march culminating with Gardner's fourth touchdown toss of the day, a third down smash route to senior Drew Dileo from the 4-yard line and a 41-30 advantage that reignited the 115,109 partisans that previously sat stunned as the Irish fought their way back into the contest.
"We have to be smarter and more disciplined as a defense. We don't coach penalties, but we want players to be smarter and more disciplined on a day-to-day basis, that falls on me," Kelly said. "I don't want my football team to be in a position where games have to be decided in that regard. We have to be smarter and more disciplined as a football team."
Trailing throughout, the Irish heavily favored the pass Saturday night, throwing 51 times vs. just 18 rushes. The ground game finished with 96 yards while quarterback Tommy Rees hit piled up 314 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
It was Notre Dame's fourth straight loss in the "Big House" and seventh in their last eight trips north since the conclusion of the Lou Holtz era (1996). No more games are scheduled between the teams in cavernous Michigan Stadium, the series going on hiatus after next year's matchup in South Bend.
Michigan out gained Notre Dame 460 yards to 410, with Gardner counting for 376 including 294 through the air. He hit 21 of 33 throws and ran for 82 yards on 13 carries, including a score and most important, a trio of chain-moving carries on third downs, his final a 14-yard draw on 3rd and 12 to effectively end the contest.
"He was a really skilled athlete. He made the plays when they needed to," said Irish inside linebacker Dan Fox. "The coaches came up with a great plan. We just poorly executed it."
With Gardner the deciding factor.