In a way, it was fitting.
Denard Robinson's Michigan Stadium career did not begin according to script. It started with a fumbled snap, then became something magnificent.
It ended with him unable to throw a football, but still very able to take the Big House's collective breath away.
Robinson trotted out onto the field with the starters not as a quarterback, but as a tailback, taking a handoff from understudy Devin Gardner for three yards. Over the course of the game, he'd accumulate 98 rushing yards on 13 carries and add two receptions—the first of his career—for an additional 24 yards, lining up everywhere from quarterback to wingback to receiver in a 42-17 victory. While it wasn't the ending anyone had hoped for, there was at least still a little of the Denard magic left, especially on a 40-yard run to end the first quarter that featured an ankle-breaking juke of Iowa safety Tanner Miller.
Once again, the star was Gardner, who accounted for six touchdowns—coming on Michigan's first six possessions—with three through the air and three on the ground. Iowa's soft zone defense looked helpless in its attempts to stop the Wolverine passing game; Gardner finished 18-of-23 for 314 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception, with all three scores meeting little Hawkeye resistance. Jeremy Gallon had a career-high 133 receiving yards on five receptions, while Roy Roundtree turned in a second consecutive stellar performance with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Al Borges used the threat of Gardner and Robinson to give Iowa's defense fits, perhaps giving a glimpse of what's to come in Columbus next week. A triple(!) reverse to Denard unfortunately was called back due to a hold. The threat of a Denard jet sweep opened up a cavernous hole for a Vincent Smith throwback screen, which the senior back took in for a fitting senior day touchdown. The most interesting wrinkle met a most unfortunate end when Fitzgerald Toussaint suffered a gruesome leg injury after taking an option pitch from Robinson.*
The defense gave up a score on Iowa's second drive before stiffening up, allowing just 221 yards in the final three quarters as an endless array of dumpoffs to tight ends and running backs couldn't sustain any real threat. Greg Davis was Greg Davis, Greg Mattison was Greg Mattison, and that went as expected. With Desmond Morgan out with an undisclosed injury, James Ross may have established himself as the weakside linebacker of the future, finishing with 12 tackles (9 solo) while showing advanced instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed.
Aside from the pregame festivities and quarterback-related dramatics, it was a mundane beating of a hapless Iowa squad. That much, at least, went according to plan. And while Denard Robinson's Big House finale may not have had a fairytale ending, there are worse ways to go out than with a few more virtuoso runs and a resounding victory.
Of course, Robinson's story isn't over yet. In Columbus, the stage is set for one final twist.
*There's no official word on Toussaint's injury except that he's currently undergoing surgery (via Hoke), but the ESPN replays and this photo from Eric—WARNING: GRAPHIC—tell an ugly story. Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Fitz.
A referee makes an arbitrary approximation of the spot of the football as Kain Colter is brought to the turf. A couple of guys dressed like crossing guards then take out an extremely precise ten-yard chain. The referee, staring at the football like it's the bottom line of an eye chart, determines that the play has resulted in a first down by the smallest of possible margins. For all intents and purposes, the game is over, decided by an educated guess made at breakneck speed.
Football is the worst.
The contest continues, however, and Michigan sells out against the run for a stop. For a moment, it looks like Jeremy Gallon could provide a miracle as he briefly breaks free after fielding a line-drive punt, but he's tackled at the 38.
18 seconds remain. No timeouts remain. Little hope remains.
But then the backup quarterback hucks the football to the impossibly-skinny senior receiver, improbably left in single coverage, and this wisp of a man somehow bats the oblong projectile out of the air and controls the ricochet, an absurd feat of concentration and athleticism that brings 110,000 despondent humans screaming to their feet in elation.
Football is the best.
From that point, victory feels strangely academic given the prior proceedings. Brendan Gibbons, Keith Stone cool, splits the uprights from 26 yards out for the tying field goal. Three plays after Devin Gardner finds Roundtree again to give Michigan first-and-goal on the opening overtime possession, he fakes a give to Fitz Toussaint, breaks contain, and lopes into the end zone unimpeded. Northwestern can only get within two yards of that blasted first-down marker on their subsequent series before Kenny Demens stonewalls Tyris Jones in the hole on fourth down.
The stadium erupts, again hopelessly in love with the greatest game known to man. Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, football forever.
Outside of a two-possession stretch when Michigan fans held their breath as Denard Robinson was sidelined with a pinky injury, the Wolverines couldn't have made it any easier to look ahead to next week's game against Michigan State, pounding a hapless Illinois squad, 45-0.
If anything, the final score belied Michigan's dominance. The offense moved the ball at will, rushing for 353 yards on 6.9 per carry and adding 174 through the air on just 15 attempts. The defense held the Illini to a mere 134 yards, including an unheard-of 29 yards on 16 passes; while it didn't help matters when starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase exited in the second quarter with an upper-body injury, his four yards on six attempts weren't lighting the world on fire.
Seemingly every play called by Al Borges worked as intended, starting with a 71-yard touchdown to Jeremy Gallon on a bubble screen* to open the scoring; Gallon weaved through the Illini defense, helped by stellar downfield blocking, most notably by tight end Mike Kwiatkowski. The next drive stalled near the goal line for a field goal after Denard exited the game with a banged-up pinky; it was the only moment when Michigan fans felt even a hint of concern.
The Wolverines continued to establish their identity as a run-first, run-second outfit on Denard's first possession back in the lineup, gaining all 68 of their yards on the ground en route to a six-yard scramble for Michigan's dreaded wonder. When Robinson opened the second half with a physics-defying 49-yard scamper to paydirt, the rout was on in earnest. Illinois's next possession ended after one play, a Kenny Demens interception of Reilly O'Toole. Three plays later, Devin Funchess hauled in a Robinson lob in the back of the end zone, bringing the score to 31-0 before many fans had returned with their halftime hot chocolates.
On the other side of the ball, Jake Ryan flashed his All-American potential again and again, amassing 11 tackles (7 solo), four TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and a devastating forced fumble as he flushed O'Toole out of the pocket, doubled back, and blindsided him to jar the ball loose. Denard Robinson may have finished with four touchdowns, 159 yards passing, and 128 yards rushing, but Ryan made a legitimate claim for best Wolverine on the field.
Ryan wasn't the only standout, as seven Wolverines tallied tackles for loss, neither Illini quarterback could find an open receiver, and Greg Mattison's blitzes hit home time and again. Two years ago, Michigan faced this same Illinois squad—with the same starting quarterback, even—and gave up 561 yards and 65 points. Against this defense, the Illini would need almost a full 17 quarters to rack up that same yardage; no matter how long they went, they'd obviously never reach that point total.
Safe to say, times have changed for both programs.
Michigan has found their perfect match at head coach and defensive coordinator. The offense under Al Borges has had their growing pains, but it's clear that they've found a suitable balance since the bye week to maximize Denard's remaining time as a Wolverine.
After the game, the marching band spelled out "Marry Me, Danielle?" as a band member dropped to a knee at midfield. Like everything the Wolverines dialed up on Saturday, the play was a success. On a cold, grey, rainy day in Ann Arbor, only the weather could dampen the spirits of those in Maize and Blue.
*On second look, it wasn't exactly a bubble screen, as Gallon started downfield before stopping and coming back to the line; a very well drawn-up play regardless.
It was there for the taking.
It was there when Michigan had a first-and-goal on their third possession, when Vincent Smith—yes, Vincent Smith—threw an interception in the end zone.
It was there on each of the next four drives, each ending with a Denard Robinson interception.
It was there when—despite the above—Michigan faced just a ten-point deficit on their first possession of the second half, when they drove to the Notre Dame 16, only to lose a Robinson fumble.
It was there when the defense forced a do-or-die third-and-four with 2:35 on the clock, only to see Tyler Eifert beat J.T. Floyd down the sideline for a 38-yard completion.
In a game that felt like karmic retribution for the last three years, however, Michigan never seized control, instead making error after crippling error until there were no more errors to make. The defense did everything in their power to overcome the offense, holding Notre Dame to just 239 yards on 4.8 yards per play and forcing two interceptions of their own. They could not stop Robinson from turning the ball over, though, and in the end it was a triumphant Tommy Rees kneeling the clock out.
The turnovers overshadowed a stellar defensive effort, one that will sadly be forgotten in the aftermath. Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson was completely ineffective, completing just one fewer pass to Michigan (two) than he did to his own team. The Irish rushing attack never got going, gaining 94 yards on 31 carries. Jordan Kovacs (7 tackles, 1 TFL) and Jake Ryan (5 tackles, all solo) both turned in outstanding games. With no margin for error, however, all it took was two poor plays on third downs—a pass interference by freshman Jarrod Wilson on the goal line and the final pass to Eifert—to foil an otherwise textbook Mattison game.
On offense, the bright spots are fewer and farther between. Fitz Toussaint finally got some holes to run though and looked like his nimble 2011 self when he found them. Roy Roundtree make a few crucial catches after largely disappearing from the offense this year. Al Borges added a promising wrinkle when Devin Gardner took an end-around only to throw downfield to fullback Joe Kerridge, drawing a pass interference on the opening drive. That's about it.
As I'm sure will be said ad nauseam in the coming bye week, all of Michigan's goals are still within reach. The Big Ten is awful and still very much there for the taking. If the Wolverines are to seize that chance, however, they'll have to be far more opportunistic than they were tonight, when a fourth straight victory over the Irish slipped through their fingers and into the hands of a team more willing to take advantage.
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A half-empty student section, a press box full of beat writers already finishing their game columns, a field littered with walk-ons and freshmen; with eight minutes remaining in the final stanza, Michigan Stadium exhibited all the telltale signs of a blowout. A one-yard touchdown run by Justice Hayes had just given the Wolverines a 63-13 lead, one that stood as the final margin.
After the last two weeks, this was a welcome sight indeed.
Denard Robinson overcame an ugly pick-six to complete 16-of-24 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 105 yards and a touchdown on the ground to lead the way offensively. Robinson spread the ball around to nine different receivers, led by Drew Dileo's 91 yards on three receptions. The stars from last week, Devins Funchess and Gardner, each recorded a touchdown reception—Gardner's on a stellar effort to tightrope the sideline and dive for the pylon—and the enigmatic Roy Roundtree found paydirt for the first time this season.
It was a rebound performance for Fitzgerald Toussaint, as well, as he gained 85 yards on 15 carries, showing off the agility in tight quarters that made him so effective last season; after finding little room to operate against Air Force, Toussaint reached the edge on his 11-yard touchdown in the first quarter with help from an A.J. Williams block. Vincent Smith added a pair of touchdowns from inside the ten, Thomas Rawls doled out more punishment than he took, Justice Hayes recorded his first career score, and Dennis Norfleet made his offensive debut with a 15-yard jet sweep that surely made Brian one very happy blogger.
Michigan fans were even treated to a Fat Guy Touchdown, courtesy of a Taylor Lewan recovery after Denard fumbled into the end zone. Lewan, for his part, appeared more concerned about his quarterback's error than excited for his own fortune, sheepishly pointing his palms towards the sky when the officials belatedly signaled touchdown.
The defense limited UMass to 259 yards of total offense, though there was still reason for concern. The Minutemen doubled their offensive scoring output from their first two games—six points—and strung together three first downs in a drive for the first time this year. This should not cause PANIC, of course—six points, fergodsakes—but there are still issues to be resolved, especially on the interior of the D-line.
UMass got paid. Michigan got a chance to breathe easy and give their backups plenty of run. Now the team can look ahead to Saturday night's matchup with Notre Dame; for today, they can feel content about handling business as expected. With the baby seal emphatically clubbed, it's time to move on to the real season, not unscathed but with the ultimate goal—a Big Ten championship—still within reach.
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In a game that felt like something out of the Rodriguez era, Michigan showed that while there's great promise for the future, the flaws exposed by Alabama are very real.
The Wolverines edged Air Force, 31-25, and the outcome wasn't decided until Jake Ryan batted down Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz's fourth-down throw with 1:28 remaining. Denard Robinson accounted for all but seven yards of the team's total offense. The defense ceded 417 total yards—290 on the ground—and failed to keep contain all afternoon.
It wasn't all bad, however. Robinson was masterful, completing 14-of-25 passes for 218 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception—one that deflected off the hands of Vincent Smith—while rushing for 218 yards and another pair of touchdowns on 20 carries. True freshman Devin Funchess emerged as a viable threat at tight end, becoming the first Michigan TE to eclipse 100 receiving yards in a game since Jerame Tuman. Devin Gardner looked like a wide receiver, hauling in five passes for 63 yards and a touchdown while running crisper routes.
The offense lived and died with Denard, as Fitzgerald Toussaint found little room to run—seven yards on eight carries, to be exact. The offensive line failed to get a push against Air Force's undersized D-line, doing little to ease concerns from last week's debacle. By the second half, Al Borges had essentially given up on generating yards the traditional way, and he was justified in doing so.
Defensively, Michigan looked ill-equipped to stop the Falcon triple-option attack. The defensive line spent much of the day on their stomachs, unable to evade chop blocks or get any sort of push. Kenny Demens looked positively Ezeh-esque, letting blockers get into him again and again before being pulled in favor of true freshman Joe Bolden. Jake Ryan was all over the field, recording a career-high 12 tackles, but sometimes "all over" can be a bad thing—keeping contain was an issue. The final Air Force touchdown came when Desmond Morgan overpursued. The defensive backs struggled against the run as well, failing to shed blocks and come up to take the pitch.
When the defense needed a big play, odds are it came from an underclassman. Ryan continually redeemed his poorer efforts with critical stops, including two pass breakups on the final Air Force drive. Bolden replaced Demens and displayed the aggressive, instinctual play that made him a high school All-American. Fellow freshman linebacker James Ross spelled Morgan late and acquitted himself well after struggling in his debut against Alabama. Several other freshmen made appearances during the game's biggest moments, including Ondre Pipkins and Mario Ojemudia.
Last season's 11-2 record belied the myriad issues Brady Hoke faced upon taking over in Ann Arbor. After two games in 2012, those issues are at the forefront for the Wolverines. The lack of depth on the offensive line means Michigan must move ahead with the current unit—despite its ineffectiveness in the run game—unless they want to insert a true freshman. The defensive tackles will be a sore spot all year; the players expected to relieve that problem are freshmen or not even on campus yet. The offense still leans heavily on Denard, whose style doesn't always mesh well with the offensive philosophy of Borges.
The Wolverines came away with a victory, a fact that cannot be overlooked, especially against a team with a difficult style to prepare for in a week's time. Denard will still make magic with his feet—his touchdown runs were both exhilarating—and perhaps his arm as well—he looks much-improved from last year even if the numbers don't necessarily bear that out. The future looks bright, too, thanks to the major contributions from a number of young players already gaining crucial experience.
The overwhelming feeling in the aftermath, however, is that this team is still two years away from competing on a national level, the only level of success that matters at Michigan. Today's game had Rich Rodriguez's fingerprints all over it; as we know, that's a smudge that isn't easily wiped away.