The curious case of Denard Robinson and the second half

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Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has Michigan at 5-2 this fall. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 23, 2012

Meet the Denard Robinson few know and fewer can explain, the Robinson who only appears in the second half. This Robinson isn’t a reckless playmaker, he’s a game manager.

This Robinson is more careful. He has zero interceptions in the second half this season. First-half Robinson has nine this year.

This Robinson is also less dynamic. He has zero touchdowns, rushing or passing, in the fourth quarter. In the other three quarters, Robinson has nine.

This Robinson is an enigma. His teammates, even Robinson himself, can’t explain what has happened in the second half. Is it by design or is it a fluke? Is Robinson smarter or is Michigan limiting his opportunities to fail? Is it something else entirely?

“I really don’t know the answer to that one,” Robinson said. “We know we got to finish. And that’s what Coach Hoke talks about all the time. Finishing strong and trying to win the fourth quarter and trying to win the second half.”

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said the decline in Robinson’ second-half statistics — both good and bad — can be credited to play calling.

“How many opportunities is he going to have?” Hoke said. “(Offensive coordinator Al Borges) obviously is putting the ball in other people’s hands.”

That’s a novel concept for Michigan, which in years past had relied on the senior quarterback to win games late. Yes, the memory of four interceptions against Notre Dame still lingers, and Robinson’s fourth-quarter pass attempts are low — his 30 fourth-quarter attempts trail the nearest per-quarter total by seven.

Yet that figure is deflated by situation factors: Michigan has held big leads against Illinois, Purdue and Massachusetts, and the game was out of reach by the fourth quarter against Alabama. Robinson has sat out two fourth quarters entirely, bringing his average fourth-quarter attempts closer to the norm. And, remember, Robinson won the game with his arm against Michigan State on Saturday with a completion to junior receiver Drew Dileo that enabled the game-winning field goal.

Against Michigan State, winning the second half meant ripping out part of the playbook. Borges said his play calling was purposefully conservative. The game and the personnel necessitated that.

“You can’t have what happened at Notre Dame and put (the defense) in predicament after predicament,” Borges said. “So there’s got to be a balance there somewhere.”

Robinson’s teammates said they haven’t noticed a change since the Notre Dame game. Fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer said Robinson is still calm and confident late in games. The players, he said, take their cues from Robinson. His faith feeds theirs.

Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs said he had no explanation for the second-half riddle. And it is a sort of riddle. Yes, Robinson has slightly fewer passing and rushing attempts in the fourth quarter but not enough to explain the precipitous drops in two opposite offensive categories.

Kovacs said Robinson has tucked the ball more often late in games — he is forcing it less. But still he has scored no touchdowns. Robinson has passed to win games. Yet he has no interceptions.

The statistical quirk could just be a problem of sample size. Michigan hasn’t been in many close games. Against Notre Dame, Robinson still powered Michigan’s failed comeback attempt, leading the Wolverines to a late field goal. Against Michigan State, he did the same to collect the win.

“He did play pretty smart,” Borges said of Robinson’s performance against Michigan State. “It kept us in the game, although it wasn’t flashy. That part I liked, which has shown the last three weeks particularly, is his growth. About being conscious of taking care of the football, making plays where there are plays, and not trying to create something that’s not there. That was good.”

No, this Robinson isn’t flashy, but he’s safer. He makes fewer mistakes, but he creates less too. And weirder, still, this Robinson said he hasn’t even noticed the second-half enigma, of the absence of interceptions and fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“I did not know that at all,” Robinson said.