The Michigan football world turned again on Saturday. It was an end and a beginning, the closing of a spellbinding chapter of Michigan football and an emphatic statement for the future.
Denard Robinson is gone, another casualty of the unrelenting spinning of the college football world. The senior will play again, but never again in Michigan Stadium.
The past and the future converged in Michigan’s 42-17 thrashing of Iowa. Robinson and junior quarterback Devin Gardner shared the spotlight.
“This is his team,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, referring to Robinson. “Him and Kovacs and all the seniors have a big piece of it, but Devin said it the other day. He has been the face of Michigan football.”
One thousand, one hundred and sixty-nine days after he introduced himself to the Big House crowd with a broken-play touchdown against Western Michigan, Robinson played his last game at Michigan Stadium. The final game was just as exotic and electrifying as the first, two irregular bookends to a dazzling career at quarterback.
“It’s kind of hard to swallow right now because it’s coming to an end,” Robinson said. “It’s hard to put into words what this means to me.”
Robinson had missed the previous two weeks with an elbow injury, but he got the start on senior day. It just wasn’t at quarterback. Robinson took several snaps at quarterback, but he started at running back and played most of the game there. He didn’t throw a pass, but he gained 98 yards on 13 carries and caught two passes for 24 yards.
Senior day, though, belonged to Gardner. The quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback had his most impressive performance yet. He scored six total touchdowns — three through the air and three on the ground. He threw for 314 yards on 18-for-23 passing and ran for another 37. Behind Gardner’s arm and Robinson’s legs, Michigan scored on each possession for the first three quarters.
“(Gardner) had six touchdowns? Did he really?” Hoke asked after the game. Then he conceded that Gardner’s performance “was pretty good.”
The Wolverines had little trouble with the reeling Hawkeyes, who had lost four straight games entering Saturday’s contest. But the win was clouded by an apparent left leg injury to redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint was tackled from behind on a run, and his left shin appeared to buckle outward. Toussaint was carted off the field and was later hospitalized, where he will undergo surgery. Gardner — who joined Robinson and redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan in comforting Toussaint before he was carted off the field — called the injury “heartbreaking.”
Toussaint’s carries were divided between Robinson and sophomore Thomas Rawls. Offensive coordinator Al Borges frequently employed a full-house formation, with Rawls as the deep back flanked by Robinson and senior Vincent Smith. Out of that set, Michigan called traditional rushes, throws and exotic looks like handoff options. Hoke said Borges had designed 15 plays specifically for Robinson as a running back.
Two of Michigan’s touchdowns were set up by that full house set with Robinson on the field. Michigan had scored once in the first quarter — on a Gardner boot-leg — and once at the beginning of the second quarter on a 37-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior receiver Roy Roundtree. On the next drive, Gardner faked a hand-off to Robinson out of the full-house formation, then pitched back to Rawls, who rushed to Iowa’s two-yard line. Gardner later scored on another boot-leg to put Michigan ahead 21-10.
On the following drive, Gardner again faked to Robinson and rolled right, then threw a screen across the field to Smith, who could have walked into the end zone. The score put Michigan ahead 28-10 at halftime.
Gardner said he knew the full house was difficult to stop because the Michigan defense struggled in practice — and they knew what to expect. This week, Gardner ran the slip screen in practice. Before the play, Gardner said, sophomore defensive end Frank Clark yelled, “You know what’s coming!”
“No you don’t,” Gardner said. “You have no idea. You think you do, but you don’t. And then we threw it right over their head, and it happened the exact same way in the game today, and we scored a touchdown.”
Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs can relate.
“When we go against our offense in practice, we just get played,” Kovacs said. “We just shake our head like, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know what I would do. I have no idea.”
Iowa had few answers for the three-back look but had even fewer for Michigan’s air attack. Twice, Gardner found receivers with no defenders in the area for easy long scores. One the first, the 37-yard touchdown pass to Roundtree, Gardner also could have thrown to a wide-open Drew Dileo in the middle of the field.
To open the second half, Gardner scored again, on — you guessed it — a boot-leg. On the next drive, freshman tight end Devin Funchess was uncovered down the field for another easy 29-yard touchdown reception.
The score was Michigan’s 28th unanswered point, and the Wolverines had scored on every single possession through three quarters. Only a Gardner interception at the start of the final frame ended the streak.
Throughout the game, Borges peppered in Robinson runs. In the first quarter, Robinson scampered for 40 yards, freezing, then beating one defender, before he ducked out of bounds. Near the end of the third quarter, Robinson caught a pass down the sideline, reversed field completely and dashed down the opposite sideline for a gain of 20 yards.
After a shaky quarter and a half, the Michigan defense shut down Iowa for much of the rest of the game. By the fourth quarter, the win was assured, though Hoke still called the defensive performance “awful.”
But the effort was more than enough for a happy, if not traditional, exit for Robinson, Kovacs and the rest of the seniors. The two walked off the field together, smiling and “reflecting on our journey,” Kovacs said. Then Robinson — Michigan’s quarterback and redeemer and, now, running back — turned to his fellow captain and said, “This is crazy man. I can’t believe it’s already here.”