I can’t be sure, but I imagine Denard Robinson had a mischievous smirk on his face when he walked to the middle of the field for the coin toss on Saturday.
You have no idea what’s up my sleeve, he probably thought.
Not one minute of film study could have prepared the Hawkeyes for what Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges put together for Saturday, which comes as a sigh of relief for all the Wolverine fans who’ve been calling for his head this season.
Damage to the ulnar nerve in his throwing elbow had Robinson sidelined for most of the last three games, but he wasn’t going to spend his final game in the Big House watching from the bench. Coach Brady Hoke has stayed mum on the extent of the injury, and nobody really knows how well Robinson can grip the football. But passer or not, Robinson has a “God-given ability,” as Hoke put it, to make defenders look like fools.
That’s why Borges spent last week inventing the just-let-Denard-do-things offense.
Against Iowa, Robinson was a position-less football player. On the first play, he lined up in the backfield and took a handoff from junior quarterback Devin Gardner for three yards. On the next play, Gardner went through his reads and dumped it off to Robinson, who danced his way forward another four yards. Later in the drive, Robinson lined up at quarterback in the shotgun, too.
Running back. Receiver. Quarterback. Borges utilized Robinson on screens, end arounds, options, even a double reverse at one point. Keeping track of where he was on the field was exhausting.
Of course, I don’t mean to dumb down the playbook, but the essence of it was simply to get Robinson in space and let him do what he does best: make people miss.
On the last play of the first quarter, Robinson took a handoff moving left, broke contain and raced up the sideline. Fifteen yards ahead, Hawkeye safety Tanner Miller rushed over to force him out of bounds — Robinson took one jab step toward the middle of the field, faking a cut back inside and Miller was caught on his heels. Robinson blew by down the sideline for another 25 yards.
And the brilliance of Saturday’s playbook was that even though Robinson was the focal point, he wasn’t, and didn’t need to be, the star.
Gardner finished the game 18-of-23 passing for 314 yards and three touchdowns, not to mention his three rushing touchdowns. He had tremendous pocket presence and his throws were on point.
But Denard, who rushed for 98 yards and picked up 24 more through the air on two receptions, still gets some of the credit there. Because even when Denard isn’t doing things in the just-let-Denard-do-things offense, the defense is preoccupied with him.
In the final minute of the first half, Michigan was driving just inside the Iowa red zone. Gardner was under center and Robinson and senior running back Vincent Smith were both lined up in the full-house backfield. Gardner faked the handoff to Robinson, who ran right and took the defense with him to that side of the field. Smith, who started right, slipped back to the left side of the field with blockers, and Gardner hit him with the throw-back screen.
There was a reason Smith was able to practically walk into the end zone. Robinson is that distracting of a presence. After the game, Gardner marveled at how well the same play worked in practice, when defensive end Frank Clark shouted that he knew what was coming and actually had no idea.
But perhaps the true genius of this playbook was the fact that Hoke, Borges and Co. broke it out just a week before the Ohio State game. Suddenly, an inactive Denard Robinson is very much active, and getting ready for that will chew up much of the Buckeyes’ game planning this week (Robinson is distracting even when it isn’t Saturday).
Obviously I don’t have the football mind that Urban Meyer possesses, but if I had to watch film of Michigan this week and develop a defense that could stop the just-let-Denard-do-things offense, I’d be scratching my head.
Not surprisingly, Hoke denies the implication that that played any role in deploying the new playbook this week. He just wanted to give Michigan its best chance to beat Iowa, yadda yadda yadda.
Hoke is a bit too sly for me to buy that. Regardless, Ohio State lingers, and Michigan’s new playbook is a doozy. Just ask fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, who after the game said that he’s just happy he doesn’t have to play against Robinson in this new offense on Saturdays.