By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 8, 2012
For Denard Robinson, the hole opened up like a blast of fresh air. For Michigan fans, it must have felt like the same.
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The run was a familiar sight, and welcomed, too — the No. 19 Michigan football team barely escaped with a 31-25 win over Air Force on Saturday.
It was just Michigan’s second offensive play of the game, a read option — Robinson’s bread and butter. Robinson kept, and with a stutter, a cut and a juke, he was off, like a rush of wind, 79-yards untouched to the end zone.
Robinson even blew past his speedy teammate, redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon, on the play. Back on the bench, panting from the chase, Gallon joked that Robinson needed to slow down.
“Not to be cocky or anything,” Robinson said, “but once I get in front of everybody and I see the end zone, I don’t think I’m being caught from behind.”
On Michigan’s first play of the second half, Robinson did it again, with a 58-yard scamper. Only this time, he fittingly added his own personal flair — ‘Shoelace’ ran the last 40 yards without his right shoe.
This is what Michigan football looks like, at least with Robinson, the senior, as the quarterback. For better or worse, the Wolverines live and die by the fortunes of a blurred No. 16 jersey darting across the field — with his shoelaces untied, of course.
This time, Robinson and his receiving corps played the hero, rescuing a shoddy defense from a comeback loss. Michigan led the entire game but needed a stop on the Falcons’ final drive to put Air Force away.
“We’re probably not going to run that defense again,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, referring to the scheme built to stop the triple-option. “That’s okay with me.”
Down by six points, Air Force took the ball at their own 20-yard line with 2:45 remaining needing a touchdown and an extra point to lead. On fourth down, redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan burst through the line to deflect the passing attempt to ice the game.
Robinson shouldered the offensive burden for Michigan largely due to the ineffectiveness of the running game. Redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint sputtered in his return from suspension, rushing for just seven yards on eight carries.
“The non-Denard running game — I guess that’s what we’re gonna call it from now on — it wasn’t productive enough,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “I don’t think (Toussaint) ever had a chance to get started. We didn’t block well enough.”
As a result, Robinson accounted for an unusually large portion of the Michigan offense. His 426 total yards (218 on the ground and 208 passing) were 99 percent of the Wolverines’ total offense, not including kneel-downs. And Robinson became the only player in NCAA history to have three separate games with at least 200 rushing and passing yards.
“What Denard did was good,” said redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan. “(But) we have to do a better job of reestablishing the line of scrimmage. It’s going to be tough for this team to be successful if we can’t do that as an offensive line.
“Seven yards from the running back is awful.”
This season is likely the last in Michigan’s spread era, but Saturday showed that Robinson remains the star. When the backs struggled or the defense failed to solve Air Force’s mystifying triple-option attack, it was Robinson who countered.
After the Falcons’ methodical opening drive stalled due to a missed field goal, Robinson struck with his opening touchdown to open up a 7-0 lead. After a Robinson tipped-ball interception led to an Air Force touchdown, he opened the half with another long run for a score, extending the lead to 21-10.
Air Force hung close for much of the game, in great part because Michigan’s defense had few answers for the Air Force ground game, and then were fooled through the rare passing attempt. Air Force gained 417 total yards on the game, 290 on the ground.
But the offense always kept the game just out of reach. Interception notwithstanding, Robinson was unusually efficient with his arm. Freshman tight end Devin Funchess had a breakout game, and Robinson found him in the open field often. Funchess caught a second-quarter touchdown and finished with 106 total yards on four receptions, all for more than 20 yards each.
Robinson was 14 for 25 passing with two touchdowns, including a pretty play-action pass to junior receiver Devin Gardner for an easy score in the third quarter to pull ahead 28-17. Gardner finished with five catches for 63 yards.
The defense won the game late, with a pair of big stops, but Robinson, as usual, was the star. That wasn’t so in the opener, when Robinson was bottled up both by offensive coordinator Al Borges (by design) and by himself (poor reads) against Alabama. Yet if Robinson’s inactivity in the opener was an outlier, then Saturday’s game against Air Force was the reversion to the mean.
During the week, Borges promised that the game plan would remain mostly unchanged. For some opponents, he said, the defensive scheme will favor running Robinson. Others call for more touches from the backfield and more attempts through the air. Still, he cautioned that the amount of touches Robinson enjoyed last season simply isn’t sustainable.
There was Robinson, though, dashing, passing and powering the Michigan offense almost exclusively. He finished with 20 rushing attempts.
“I mean, if the running back’s running the ball 27 times, I wouldn’t mind,” Robinson said. “If I’m running the ball 27 times I wouldn’t mind. If we’re throwing the ball 27 times, it don’t matter. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Back to the second play of the game, the 79-yard touchdown, Robinson kept to the right and froze the outside linebacker, unblocked by design, before bursting through the hole. He dashed left, off a second-level block from fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer, side-stepped a safety, and he was gone.
By the time Robinson reached Air Force’s 40-yard line, fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh thrust his hand in the air. With the ball in Robinson’s hands in the open field, there was no other outcome but this: he would score.