COLUMBUS — It took Ohio State coach Urban Meyer two quarters, but he had simplified Michigan’s offense down to one key: stop Denard Robinson.
Michigan’s senior quarterback has been nursing a right-elbow injury that limits his ability to throw. But against the Buckeyes on Saturday, Robinson broke free several times on long runs in the first half. After the last one, a 67-yard scamper, Meyer sought out his defensive coaches.
“My comment was, after I saw Denard Robinson sneak outta there for a long run, stop the quarterback run,” Meyer said. “That’s the input I had. Probably the same — I think 107,000 people said that as well.”
That simple key, and Ohio State’s execution, shut out Michigan in the second half and gave the Buckeyes the win, 26-21. Michigan’s failure to adjust doomed the Wolverines on third down.
There were fumbles and interceptions, questionable calls and misreads. Michigan managed just 21 plays and a meager 60 yards and zero points in the second half, as the offense — electric in the first half — went out with a whimper.
Michigan faced three third downs in the final 30 minutes. They ran with sophomore running back Thomas Rawls for no gain, then again with senior Vincent Smith for no gain and with Smith once more for a loss of two yards. On Michigan’s final drive, junior quarterback Devin Gardner finally threw on a third down, and the Wolverines finally converted.
Michigan led, 21-20, by the time it faced its first third down of the second half. At that moment, Michigan running backs had rushed just three times for a collective eight yards. Robinson, meanwhile, ignited the offense with six rushes for 124 yards and a touchdown in the first half, while Gardner threw for 107 yards and a score and rushed for another touchdown.
It was third down and three from Michigan’s 48-yard line. Gardner, at quarterback, handed off to sophomore running back Thomas Rawls over the right guard.
He didn’t gain a yard.
Fourth down. After a time out, Michigan coach Brady Hoke elected to go for it. Robinson, lined up in the shotgun. Ohio State’s defenders had been coached to focus on Robinson, shut off the edge when he lined up in what they viewed as a Wildcat formation.
Robinson rushed over the left guard. He lost two yards — a turnover on downs. The Wolverines wouldn’t get as far as their own 48-yard line for the rest of the game.
“They were a little bit predictable in the first half,” said Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers. “You know, they put 16 (Robinson) back there, he was gonna run it. And they put 12 (Gardner) back there, they were gonna throw it. And after a while that became something that we keyed on.”
Michigan had run the same play it ran on fourth down three times in the first half, all for gains. Robinson, though, chose the wrong gap, according to Hoke. The play still would have picked up the first down, but redshirt junior Taylor Lewan missed a block on linebacker Ryan Shazier. It was Shazier who made the stop.
Next possession, the Wolverines trailed 23-21 and had a first down on their 44-yard line after a 30-yard completion. Robinson again set up in the shotgun, and the safeties started creeping in.
“The defensive coaches told us that we needed to stop No. 16 because we knew he wasn’t going to throw the ball because of his wrist,” said safety Christian Bryant.
So with Robinson in the game without Gardner, they crept up. If they were lined up on the slot receiver, they changed their leverage and pinched into the box.
Robinson took the snap and ran up the middle. Bryant, playing near the box, met him there and put his helmet on the ball, which Robinson held in his left arm. Earlier in the week, Michigan offensive coordinator said he was not concerned that Robinson’s injury forced him to carry the ball in his non-dominant arm.
The hit jarred the ball loose, and Ohio State’s Nathan Williams fell on it.
Two possessions for Michigan in the half. Two turnovers.
“Too many turnovers,” Robinson said. “We had big turnovers in the second half, and in order for you to win this game, you gotta control the ball.”
After Michigan got the ball back, the Wolverines faced third down again, this time third-and-two from their own 30-yard line. Robinson was in at quarterback again, and he handed to senior running back Vincent Smith.
Smith didn’t gain a yard.
Before the run, Michigan running backs had rushed for 11 yards on six carries.
“You kinda look at where you’re at and what you feel you may have an opportunity,” Hoke said of the third-down calls. “You know, upstairs, you see a lot of different things.”
Michigan was again forced to punt. Through three possessions in the second half, the Wolverines rushed eight times for six yards. Gardner passed three times, all complete, for 46 yards.
The Wolverines faced a third, third down in the fourth quarter. This time, Gardner was in at quarterback, needing one yard. He handed off to Smith. Smith lost two yards.
Hoke said Gardner didn’t pass more, because “they just weren’t called.”
Gardner fumbled on his next possession, and by then, Michigan had lost its offensive rhythm after three second-half turnovers.
“When we gave the ball back as many times as we did in the second half, your rhythm kinda fades away a little bit,” Hoke said. “And then the clock’s against you a little bit.”
By Michigan’s final drive, Meyer and the Buckeyes didn’t have to worry about Robinson. He was out of the game, as Michigan needed to pass more, Hoke said — though Hoke also said Robinson could have thrown on Saturday.
Ohio State had done its job. Robinson actually lost two yards in the second half. Michgian, its star neutralized, found no other answers.