It wasn’t a perfect spiral, but in a way, that made it a perfect pass. And it was the perfect way to complete Denard Robinson’s redemption.
Down by three with eight seconds left, Robinson, Michigan’s junior quarterback, took the huddle for the final time in the drive that would give Michigan the 35-31 victory.
Robinson was leading his second final drive. Coming back from a 17-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, he had gone 3-for-4 and taken the Wolverines 58 yards for Michigan’s first lead of the game with 1:12 remaining.
Now he had to do it again. Notre Dame (0-2) used just four plays to retake the lead with 30 seconds left.
This time, Robinson deferred to redshirt junior wide receiver Roy Roundtree.
“He told me in the huddle,” Robinson said, “ ‘Denard, I got to get it. I got to get it.’ ”
The play call was a fade route. Roundtree beat Notre Dame cornerback Gary Gray. The spiral was a little loose. The ball floated.
“I threw it up,” Robinson said. “And I knew he was going to get it.”
Roundtree had to readjust his body and open his back shoulder up.
The ball glistened in the lights, which were the focal point of a pregame focused on Michigan Stadium’s first night game, but that didn’t matter.
In terms of the game, nothing else mattered.
It didn’t matter that Roundtree hadn’t made a catch the entire game, that Gray was holding Roundtree, or that the Fighting Irish had left just half a minute on the clock and 80 yards in front of the Wolverines.
Roundtree jumped and caught the ball just above Gray’s helmet. He planted his foot. Touchdown.
“Once I saw the ball come off, it was high,” Roundtree said. “Denard put it up high so I can adjust to it. Once I came back towards it, he was still up on me, so I just jumped up in the air and focused on it and when I came down, I made sure I my one foot was in.”
The officials reviewed it, but the 114,804 in attendance knew what they saw: the conclusion to a game that would seemingly never end.
Robinson had already drove Michigan into Notre Dame territory and dumped off a screen pass to junior running back Vincent Smith for a touchdown.
Then Rees came back and gave the Fighting Irish the lead with 30 seconds left and Robinson reverted back to his old self, over-throwing redshirt sophomore Jeremy Gallon. But the next play he didn’t miss a wide-open Gallon running a wheel route, bringing the ball to the 16-yard line.
While Robinson finished the day with 338 yards passing and five total touchdowns, it became clear early that he had to make something happen. No Michigan running back rushed for more than 10 yards.
But from the beginning, Robinson struggled. He completed just two passes in the first half and overthrew a screen pass for an interception. The throw was similar to the one he hit Smith with for the go-ahead touchdown. When the team went to the locker room, Michigan had a rattled Robinson and was in jeopardy.
“I went and talked to him at halftime and really just needed to calm him down because sometimes he speeds everything up and then kind of loses track of where he is,” fifth-year senior center David Molk said. “He just needed to calm down and once we got back out there in the second half, he was ready to go.”
It didn’t translate immediately to the field. Robinson completed just two more passes in the third and threw another interception.
As the quarter wound down, the game appeared over yet again. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees’ second touchdown pass of the game put Notre Dame up 24-7. At the break, Rees had one fewer touchdown pass than Robinson had completions.
On the Wolverines’ first play after the touchdown, Fighting Irish defensive end had Kapron Lewis-Moore grabbed Robinson by the ankles. Before going down, Robinson fired a pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Junior Hemingway, coming across the field behind his defender. Hemingway went 77 yards to the six-yard line.
Robinson entered the fourth with 136 yards passing. Over half of them came on one throw.
The defense kept Michigan (2-0) in the game. While Rees had 315 yards and three touchdowns, he also threw two interceptions and Notre Dame fumbled three times.
And it was a Wolverines turnover that turned Robinson around. With Michigan on the one-yard line, sophomore Stephen Hopkins fumbled. The ball bounced back and right in front of Robinson, who picked it up and ran into the endzone untouched.
“Once I handed it off, I looked, I was like ‘what?’ ” Robinson said. “And I just grabbed the ball and ran.”
The next time Robinson touched the ball, he both threw and ran effectively, bringing Michigan within three with a beautiful throw on Gallon’s fade route. But Robinson couldn’t shake his demons, throwing another interception — this time it was at the goal line with four minutes left. After the defense bailed him out again, Robinson took over with 2:16 left — just enough time for a two-minute drill.
“The last drive we had offensively, number 16’s ability to elude and evade and step up and throw the ball, that’s something that we always have going for us,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “We’ve done two-minute drills since we got here in January. We’ve probably done 1,000 two-minute drills with different scenarios, different timeouts, different ones-on-ones, twos-on-twos because those are the high pressure — most pressure — situations that you have in a football game so I was confident that we knew how to handle that.”
Michigan scored but so did Notre Dame. Three touchdowns were scored in the final 1:12. Robinson had to lead another come back not in a two-minute drill, but a 30-second version.
That’s when Robinson, on his most imperfect day, threw the imperfect pass that led to the Roundtree touchdown.
It was the perfect victory.