Eastern Michigan had begged for this to happen. And the reward? A steady dose of Denard Robinson, running the read-option until the game ended.
Take one speedy quarterback and whichever sidekick back you wish and it makes for one lethal pick-your-poison combo.
“Reads, most of it was just reads — that’s what happened.” Robinson said of the 344 rushing yards Michigan had in the final three quarters of the Wolverines’ 31-3 victory on Saturday.
“I could read it out and get the ball and run, so when things like that start happening it’s kind of hard for the defense to stop.”
Whenever Michigan lined up in the I-formation, the Eagles stacked the box, forcing Robinson to throw the ball. When Robinson couldn’t make them pay with his arm, Michigan adjusted and turned to running out of the shotgun, almost exclusively.
Vincent Smith was the main beneficiary on this day.
Not-so-distant memories must have danced through the Eagles’ heads of early in the second quarter, when all five defenders in the box ran to the running back on the option, and Robinson started to fly upfield. Eventually he ran out of room on the sideline, 52 yards later.
So after Robinson ran for two consecutive 12-yard runs later in the quarter, Smith took a straight handoff and sprinted for 38 yards. Then 27 yards. The shifty Smith grabbed big chunks here and there. Then 14. Later it was 12, then 11 the next play. He finished with 118 yards on just nine carries — paltry compared to Robinson’s 198-yard day.
“He was making the right reads and he was getting downfield and he was reading off the blocks well and finding those creases,” said redshirt junior guard Patrick Omameh.
Smith’s coaches like how versatile he is, running and catching the ball and blocking too. His teammates just respect him for how tough he is.
“Vince is one of those guys that you see everyday that’s not scared to put his face on Mike Martin coming up the middle — somebody who might be twice his size,” Omameh said.
Smith is usually relegated to his role as the third-down back and his name isn’t mentioned as a leading candidate to carry the load as Michigan’s lead back. Instead, redshirt sophomore Fitz Toussaint and senior Mike Shaw — both with a bit more size than the 5-foot-6 Smith — were battling to start. And both may be considered better equipped to run Hoke’s power run game, which fell by the wayside Saturday.
Toussaint had more carries but less space to work than Smith. And Shaw got the ball once. In total, the running backs ran the ball 23 times for 173 yards — altogether still not at Robinson’s level.
“Whenever we needed a jump, a running back to step up when the game’s not going well, I guess we feel like whatever for the team,” Smith said. “If we need the quarterback to score touchdowns or the running back, we’re both complementing each other.”
GORDON’S GROOVY: Redshirt sophomore safety Thomas Gordon dedicated himself this summer — to the game of football, to his teammates, to himself. He said he finally took football seriously and made it a top priority.
He watched film and worked out with his teammates. The strength coaches made him more explosive. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense had him playing centerfield again. Gordon was going to be a ball-hawk.
Mattison and Hoke gave Gordon the starting spot and, so far, all he’s done is deliver bone-crushing hits and show a nose for the football.
Three games into the career of the new Thomas Gordon, he has 23 tackles, tied for second on the team.
On Saturday, he recovered a fumble and made a one-handed interception off an Eastern Michigan trick play. Gordon saw that the Eagles had two quarterbacks on the field, recognized something was fishy and read the double-pass the whole way.
“Thomas has had a really good summer,” Hoke said. “(It) starts there, with what he did with his weight and how he reported to camp. And I think his attitude and Michigan football being important to him and his teammates being important.
“I’m really proud of him for doing those things. It’s paying off for him and paying off for us.”
I AM KOGER, HEAR ME ROAR: “Hypeman 86” had something to say.
Hypeman 86, as senior captain Kevin Koger calls himself, had lived through fast-start hangovers the past two seasons.
So before Saturday’s game, Koger spoke up and got the whole team riled up.
“Kevin Koger, he wasn’t elected a captain for no reason,” Omameh said. “He’s just the kind of guy who when he felt the need, he tried to get us up.”
Koger denied that was the reason he took action, but regardless, he felt something needed to be said.
“I didn’t expect a letdown, I just felt like it was my time to say something,” Koger said. “I don’t really say too much.
“I just felt like it was my day to step up and lead, not just by example, but vocally. I felt like it was my time to actually say something, today, for a change.”
THE KICK HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD: The game’s outcome had been decided. Everything else would be a cherry on top when redshirt sophomore kicker Brendan Gibbons trotted onto the field, staring down a 21-yard field goal.
Snap. Hold. Kick. Good.
The crowd erupted in one of its loudest cheers of the afternoon. They were well versed in the Michigan kicking troubles of 2010 — 4-for-14 on field goals, the offense forced to go for it on fourth downs when they were well within field goal range. Nothing was certain.
After Gibbons made the Wolverines first field goal of the season Saturday, Hoke did what he’s done all along: he downplayed how soothing it was to see something happen that should be automatic.
“The way (Gibbon has) kicked during camp, either up here or down at the practice fields, putting some pressure on him and all that, he’s really been pretty daggone consistent,” Hoke said.
HERRON AND GORDON EXPECTED BACK: Both fifth-year senior Brandon Herron and redshirt sophomore Cam Gordon were on the dress list of available football players for Saturday’s game. Neither played.
Hoke expects both Herron (leg) and Gordon (back), two of his defensive playmakers, to be back this week against San Diego State.