SportsMonday Column: Where does Denard's performance rank among Michigan's all-time greats?

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Cornerback Charles Woodson plays for Michigan against Ohio State in Nov. 1997. Buy this photo

Daily Sports Editor
Published September 12, 2010

As sports fans, it’s a rare occasion to sit back and realize we are indeed watching history unfold before our eyes.

I’ve witnessed a few of these events — I was in the stands as Philip Brabbs kicked the game-winning field goal against Washington in 2002 and, on the flip side, I looked on in horror when Appalachian State did the unthinkable in 2007.

But it’s even more exceptional to see an individual performance so magical that one player gives us tingles the rest of the night.

As I stood on the sideline for Denard Robinson’s final drive against Notre Dame, I felt a part of one of those moments. I watched him take off on an astonishing 87-yard run for a touchdown and make clutch throw after clutch throw. But that final drive was his tour de force, the icing on his abnormally large cake. And we’re only talking about the guy’s second start ever.

It’s probably (definitely?) too soon to utter the “H” word in regards to Robinson, despite the fact that he leads the NCAA in rushing yards through week two — as a quarterback. But I started thinking, where does this rank as an individual performance in Michigan football history?

Plenty of dynamic players have come through Ann Arbor — three Heisman winners, several who came close. But none of them have done what Denard did on Saturday. And that’s why he makes my top-five list:

5. Braylon Edwards vs. Michigan State, 2004

There are seldom opportunities for a wide receiver to absolutely take over a game. But against the Spartans in 2004, Edwards turned in arguably the single greatest performance by a Michigan wide receiver in program history.

With six minutes remaining and the Wolverines down, Edwards pulled down a Chad Henne lob for a touchdown that made him look like a man among boys.

Three minutes later, he did it again, just with more authority.

And then in triple overtime, Henne looked in Edwards' direction again. But this time, the Spartans almost seemed scared to cover No. 1 out of fear of humiliation. He scored, and Michigan pulled out an amazing victory on his shoulders.

There have been plenty of great wideouts at Michigan, but Edwards’ performance in such a close rivalry matchup was the best.

4. Denard vs. Notre Dame

He may be No. 4 on this list, but what makes Robinson stand out is that he singlehandedly demolished the Irish in just his second start. No one on this list can claim anything similar.

I’m still trying to grasp how one human being can run and pass for 502 yards total. But that’s the best part about Denard: He’ll probably prove, at some point, that he can do better.

The game's consequences may not match the others on this list when all is said and done, but the pure shock factor from Robinson’s mass destruction of quarterbacking boundaries and the ultimate enjoyability of a player unlike any Michigan fans have ever seen should put him on this list by default.

Consider my shoelaces untied.

3. Tim Biakabutuka vs. Ohio State, 1995

Talk about a man among boys. In a make-or-break game for Ohio State that had major Rose Bowl implications, Biakabutuka stiff-armed literally every member of the Buckeye defense on at least one occasion. With 104 yards after just five carries, Touchdown Tim didn’t need holes, he made them.

“Just give it to Tim,” the TV analysts said on several occasions. And they did, even though Ohio State knew what was coming on nearly every play. Sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Biakabutuka finished the day with 313 yards, the second most in the history of Michigan football. But with the entire team on his back, Biakabutuka ruined the Buckeyes' postseason.

That sure counts for something.

2. Tom Harmon vs. Ohio State, 1940

If you’re a fan of stats, Harmon’s part in Michigan’s 40-point shutout victory should make your head spin.

The Heisman Trophy winner that year, Harmon put up three touchdowns on the ground, two through the air, intercepted three passes, (breath), kicked four extra points and punted three times at a clip of 50 yards per punt — the original one-man show.

Harmon’s performance was so special that the entirety of Ohio State Stadium stood up and gave him a standing ovation. That, no matter how glossy the stats, will never happen again.

Neither will Old 98’s statline. I know, I know, Denard did punt against the Irish. But when Rodriguez puts him out at cornerback, then we’ll talk about him showing up Harmon.

1. Charles Woodson vs. Ohio State, 1997

As rare as it is to see an offensive player take over a game like the other four on this list did, it’s even more rare to see a defensive player do the same — and do it better.

With a national title berth on the line, Woodson made Ohio State’s lead wideout David Boston — a 6 foot, 2 inch man-child — look absolutely puny. And when the Buckeyes were driving, Woodson pulled down an interception in the endzone to halt the Buckeyes drive.

The offense had been slow all game long, but with Woodson streaking across the field on offense — with definite cred for playing both ways — he pulled down the game’s most important catch, a 37-yarder that set up Michigan’s only offensive touchdown.

And after being a moderate punt returner all season long, Woodson took his most important punt return to the house to clinch the game for the Wolverines. His Heisman moment eventually led to a national title for Michigan.

A defensive player may not win the Heisman for a very long time because none outside of Woodson have deserved it. And in his Heisman game, Michigan fans saw a historical performance that may never be rivaled.