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Red-zone deficiency dooms Michigan in comeback attempt

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 23, 2012

SOUTH BEND — Denard Robinson flicked his wrist and sent a fade into the far corner of the end zone. Roy Roundtree looked back, elevated and grabbed the ball at the peak of its flight. Touchdown.

Robinson, Michigan’s senior quarterback, gave Roundtree a point and whirled back around to the inaudible beat pounding through his headphones as he stood on the 10-yard line at Notre Dame Stadium.

It was still warm-ups, an hour before kickoff, but the pitch-and-catch combo of Robinson and Roundtree that saved Michigan against Notre Dame last season was ready to do it all again. Except that when they suited up in their white jerseys, maize pants and winged helmets, the end zone was nowhere to be found.

Michigan entered the red zone on five different drives in its 13-6 loss to the Fighting Irish on Saturday but came away with just six points off two field goals. Robinson and the Wolverines’ offense took 10 snaps in the red zone, gained just five total yards and never got inside the six-yard line.

Prior to Saturday evening, the Wolverines hadn't gone without a red-zone touchdown since a loss to Toledo on Oct. 11, 2008.

The numbers are as much a testament to the Notre Dame defense as they are an admonishment of the Michigan offense. The Fighting Irish have held two Big Ten forces, Michigan and Michigan State, to nine total points and no touchdowns over the last two weeks.

“When your defense is disappointed that they kicked a field goal and made it, that’s when you know, like, dang, we’re going to be good,” said Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te’o, who intercepted two passes in the game.

Entering the game, the Wolverines were a perfect 9-for-9 in red-zone conversions, with eight touchdowns and a field goal to their record. They were in a similar position a year ago, when the offense was 13-for-13 with 13 touchdowns through four games.

“Why did you say that?” offensive coordinator Al Borges said on Sept. 28, 2011 when asked about the sterling red-zone efficiency. “Doggone it. It’s just like that kiss of death, OK?”

OK. Except this time no one asked about it. Michigan just self-destructed on its own.

It began with a drive that started on the Notre Dame 10-yard line midway through the first quarter. After a rush by redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint lost two yards, Robinson was sacked on consecutive plays for losses of three and 10 yards. Already backed beyond the red zone, redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons missed the 43-yard field goal.

Later in the quarter, after Robinson scampered down to the Notre Dame 10 once again for a first down, Borges called for a toss sweep to the right. Senior running back Vincent Smith took the pitch and immediately looked to pass. He rose over an unrushing defender and aimed for junior receiver Drew Dileo at the goal line, but he misfired and was intercepted by Notre Dame freshman Nicky Baratti.

“If we get behind the guy and throw the ball a little deeper it’s a good play,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

The third trip to the red zone saw Robinson take the first snap and bust up the middle for an eight-yard gain — before fumbling the ball away on a hit by junior linebacker Danny Spond.

Another red-zone mishap came when a 14-play march downfield stalled on the 15-yard line and Gibbons banged home a chip-shot field goal.

And the fifth and final trip to the red zone came with Michigan scrambling to make up a two-score deficit. Robinson engineered a six-play drive that took the Wolverines down to the six-yard line before a sack forced another field goal.

Michigan never got another chance. Robinson and Roundtree couldn’t repeat the play they’d dreamed of for a year.

“We’ve got to finish, man,” Roundtree said. “Coach Hoke says you’ve got to finish. It’s something we gotta deal with now.”

Though Robinson had what he called the worst game of his career, his five interceptions and the dismal red-zone showing weren’t connected — Robinson passed in the red zone as much as Smith did: just once.

The breakdown of red-zone snaps is equal parts peculiar and alarming: five runs, three sacks, an incomplete pass and an interception. The first and only pass Robinson got off in the red zone was an incomplete heave to junior receiver Devin Gardner in the corner of the end zone on a last-ditch effort with less than four minutes remaining in the game.

The ratio, though, shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Against Massachusetts last week, Michigan ran 13 running plays and four pass plays in the red zone.

When asked what caused the red-zone futility, Notre Dame’s scheme or Michigan’s execution, Hoke admitted, “It’s always a little bit of both.”

The remedy?

“Score touchdowns,” Hoke said. “How do you do that? You keep working your red-zone offense, you keep knocking holes in the defense, you keep running crisp routes, you keep throwing the ball on target.”


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