October 28, 2012

Michigan's hopes ride on Robinson

It looked like the cavalry without any horses, the Air Force flying prop planes, and James Bond sans gadgetry. If anyone doubted for a millisecond what senior quarterback Denard Robinson means to Michigan's chances for a Big Ten championship, Nebraska laid bare the truth.

The Cornhuskers invited Superman to sit in a Kryptonite Barcalounger, then systematically took Michigan apart while he remained incapacitated.

It was going to be tough enough to beat Nebraska in its own house with Robinson. Without him, the Wolverines stood as vulnerable as a snowman in Tahiti.

Their chances of seeing a berth in the Big Ten championship game and possibly Pasadena didn't end in the misery-laden 23-9 loss at Memorial Stadium, by any means. But it's obvious the Wolverines aren't going far without him.

"You've got one of the dynamic quarterbacks in the NCAA," acknowledged fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree. "He breaks all the records. When he went down, it was a big factor. But you can't just let that mess up your offense."

They didn't let it. It just happened.

Let's face it, while not a world-beater itself, Nebraska awaited Michigan's arrival like a starving lion would a wounded wildebeest. The Cornhuskers had the Wolverines in their house, at night, in front of a raucous, near-record home crowd.

The sting of Michigan's 45-17 humbling of them in Ann Arbor the year before hadn't subsided. The desperation of a do-or-die situation in the division race further fueled them.

They led Michigan, 7-3, even before Robinson left the game with a nerve-damaged throwing arm late in the second quarter. Once he was gone, so were the Wolverines' greatest hopes of stealing a road win that would have put the division far off in the rearview mirror.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy arrived on the scene and gave it all he had. But this stage, at this point, proved simply too big for a Michigan offense directed by a big-game rookie.

He threw 16 times, completing three to his teammates and three to the Cornhuskers. He threw for 38 of the 44 yards Michigan gained over the final 33 minutes of the contest.

With the threat of Robinson's running wiped away, Nebraska pummeled Michigan's already struggling running game. The Cornhuskers turned everything loose on an offense that lost not just a sparkplug, but the engine itself.

"When he got hurt, the backup quarterback came in and he's not really a threat," Nebraska senior safety P.J. Smith noted. "We were able to not be so worried about the quarterback."

Nebraska senior linebacker Sean Fisher insisted the Cornhuskers didn't dramatically change their defensive scheme when Robinson exited stage left. They just turned up the heat a little, with far less threat of getting burned themselves.

"I think everybody in the stands and on the sidelines could kind of breathe a sigh of relief, because he's such a great threat," Fisher said. "We figured that they'd try to get the ball into some of their other good players' hands, so we didn't really change anything from a defensive standpoint."

In the meantime, everything changed for Michigan.

Hoke kept checking with head trainer Paul Schmidt to see if Robinson might be able to reenter the game. The answer came back no, and Hoke afterward insisted junior Devin Gardner - who switched from quarterback to wide receiver last spring - hadn't taken enough snaps at quarterback this fall to justify that move.

Asked if those circumstances might change this week, Hoke certainly didn't shut down the possibility.

"We'll talk about it," the head coach assured.

Michigan disemboweled Minnesota in Ann Arbor last season, 58-0. It's quite possible the Wolverines could go on the road next week and win with Bellomy at quarterback, or Gardner, or walk-on fifth-year senior Jack Kennedy, or … well, you get the idea.

But after that, Michigan needs Robinson to win - period. The program preaches - rightfully so, from a tactical standpoint - that the expectation is for the position.

But when someone who rang up more total yards than anyone in the 133-yard history of the program occupies the position, and he's out, there's going to be falloff. In this case, it's a precipitous one.

Robinson went out of the game straining for more yards, rather than running out of bounds. Hoke refused to fault that approach.

"You've got a guy who is a pretty good competitor," Hoke said. "Sometimes competitors are stubborn. He was trying to get it in the end zone. For me to say he shouldn't have done that, I'd be a hypocrite. You like competitive people, and he's a competitive guy."

He's more than that. He and Michigan's defense represent the Wolverines' twin lifelines to Pasadena, if that dream is to remain alive.

Next year, so much changes, including Michigan's offense. There will be growing pains, new challenges, and less reliance on a single super talent to spice the stew.

But for now, Michigan fans wait in nervous anticipation to see when the one with unlaced shoes can begin tying foes in knots again.

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