The message came in loud and clear.
“Denard (Robinson) is our quarterback,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “We’re 6-1 and a lot of that is because Denard is our quarterback.”
That statement came two days after Robinson completed less than 38 percent of his passes. Two days after Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges rotated sophomore backup Devin Gardner into the game for a few snaps. Two days after Michigan State proved for the second time it knew how to corral Robinson, providing a legitimate blueprint for the rest of the Big Ten.
Robinson completed his first two passes Saturday, leading Michigan (2-1 Big Ten, 6-1 overall) on a touchdown drive that ended with a spectacular 15-yard touchdown scramble. The rest of his day was forgettable. Robinson connected on just two of his next 13 passes.
“We know how he plays, man,” said Michigan State cornerback Isaiah Lewis. “We know he’s going to try and run on us. So we game planned around that. … We know he needs to work a little on his passing game. He’s a good quarterback, but we know that’s kind of his weakness a little bit.”
So the Spartans blitzed Robinson early and often, most effectively with their cornerbacks off the edge. The speed off the edge contained Robinson’s ability to improvise and forced quick decisions. When Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi relied on his front four to get pressure, they picked up on the snap count.
“You can put a fear in the quarterback’s eyes, cause him to make mistakes,” said Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. “He’s a guy, you know he’s a competitor. But at the same time, he’s not that big. You don’t want to keep getting crunched by a 300-pound defensive lineman all the time.”
Narduzzi told the ESPN announcers that his plan was to have nine defenders up close to the line of scrimmage at all times, playing his cornerbacks tight to the line, clearly zeroing in on Robinson’s ability to run. In 2010, Narduzzi’s plan forced three Robinson interceptions and held him to 4.1 yards per carry, injuring the quarterback in the process.
From that point on last season, Robinson looked like a different quarterback than the one that dominated non-conference play. A few games later, former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez started rotating Tate Forcier in at quarterback because he liked Forcier better running certain passing plays. Once Michigan fell behind in games, the Wolverines needed Forcier and his passing-oriented playbook to come back.
The Spartans may have started a chain reaction of events again.
In the 2011 version, Robinson set a career-low for completion percentage and exited the game with a bruised back as questions arose for the first time whether he should be replaced by Gardner — the taller, supposedly more polished passer.
Gardner saw action in the past two games in a package featuring both Robinson and himself on the field at the same time. But against Northwestern and Michigan State, Gardner took a handful of snaps without Robinson on the field.
About a month ago, it seemed implausible that Gardner would see playing time with Robinson still struggling as a passer.
“All these questions about Denard Robinson are all fair questions,” Borges said on Sept. 20. “Denard Robinson is not going to develop any of these skills with Devin Gardner in the game. That’s bad and good, because God knows I’d like to get Devin in the game. It’s just hard to do unless you’re going to commit to a two-quarterback system, which we’re not going to do. We’re going to wait and find instances we can get him on the field.”
Hoke explained that they had three plays they liked for Devin to run, but Gardner’s role has expanded in each Big Ten game. Most critics of the two-quarterback system point to a lack of consistency and rhythm that hurt the starter. Hoke denied that subbing Robinson out for those three snaps, and the handful with Robinson lined up out wide, added to his inability to get going.
“That would be similar to taking a defensive end out and rotating him,” Hoke said of putting Gardner in for a few plays. “When you think about it, because they both have fundamentals and techniques and things that they have to do, when you look at it schematically from a defensive standpoint. So I don’t know what the difference is, besides he touches the ball every time.”
Clearly, Robinson had neither consistency nor comfort Saturday as he completed just 9-of-24 passes, but the Spartans’ plan can take most of the credit for that.
Hoke seemed more concerned with how his offensive line blocked than the play of his quarterback. The unit whiffed on picking up a key cornerback blitz on a 4th-and-1 in the red zone late in the fourth quarter that would have extended the potential game-tying drive. And Robinson and Gardner were sacked a combined seven times.
“There’s a lot more to it than just Denard,” Hoke said.
What you saw against Michigan State — Robinson at the helm, with Gardner running a few key plays — seems to be the plan going forward. If the Big Ten follows the Spartans’ scheme, Robinson may be forced to evolve or Gardner could see more time.
Borges said last week that he wasn’t one to pull a quarterback after a few bad throws.
How poorly would Robinson have to play to force Hoke’s hand?
“I wouldn’t even speculate, because that’s a point that’s way out there,” he said.