ARLINGTON, Texas — With 4:25 remaining in the third quarter of Saturday night’s Cowboys Classic, senior quarterback Denard Robinson hit the ground, writhing in pain, and the Michigan football team’s season flashed before its eyes.
Luckily for the eighth-ranked Wolverines — who depend on their quarterback perhaps more than any other team in the country depends on a single player — Robinson emerged from a brief trip to the tunnel ready to go for the next series. He played the remainder of the game, though there wasn’t much left to salvage in Michigan’s 41-14 loss to Alabama.
Though Robinson was healthy enough on Saturday night, it was as if he played with shackles on his legs for most of the game. The dual-threat senior finished with just 10 carries — with just two attempts for three yards by halftime. By then, the Wolverines were already trailing by 24 points.
“I think we did (run Robinson),” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “I mean, there are some (games) that we’re going to run him a little more. There are some reads in there that maybe he could have kept it, I’m sure he kept it once or twice. But we couldn’t establish the line of scrimmage, so when you can’t do that, that doesn’t do you very well.”
At this point in his career, the quarterback’s prowess as a runner is well established, and Michigan has depended on his rushing ability in both of his years as a starter through two different offensive systems.
Against Alabama and its powerful defense — which, it was thought, would be weaker in the defensive backfield than in the front seven — the Wolverines knew Robinson would have to make plays through the air.
But with starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, a redshirt junior, suspended for the game because of his legal problems, Robinson was rendered the only significant threat Michigan had on the ground.
The other two halfbacks that played, fifth-year senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls, couldn’t find running room at any point, except for Smith’s 22-yard run late in the third quarter. The pair combined for just 48 yards on 19 carries.
As Hoke alluded to, Michigan’s offensive line was at fault, too, unable to get a push against the stout Crimson Tide front. But a player with Robinson’s skill set is capable of making something out of nothing, and still, he remained unused as a runner.
The quarterback didn’t see it that way, pointing to just a couple instances when he thought he should have kept the ball on a read option instead of handing off and lauding Alabama’s defense for the way he was defended. He did admit, though, that his play overall wasn’t up to par.
“I didn’t make the throws that I should have made today, and I feel like I didn’t play as the Michigan quarterback today,” Robinson said. “I got to step it up and be more accountable.”
Robinson’s first designed run didn’t come until late in the first half, when he punched the ball into the endzone from six yards out to finally get the Wolverines on the board. (That play itself came after he finally connected on a big pass play, finding a streaking Jeremy Gallon for 71 yards.)
Offensive coordinator Al Borges seemed to make more of an effort to keep the ball in Robinson’s hands after halftime, with the Deerfield Beach, Fla. native making five rush attempts out of 11 plays in Michigan’s first two drives of the third quarter. He averaged 4.4 yards on those carries, compared to just under two yards per carry on the rest of the team’s 24 attempts.
That’s when Robinson went down hard after taking a big hit while extending for the first down on a scramble. Whether it was fear of further injury, or the thought that the Wolverines needed to use the passing game if they had any hope of coming back from a 34-7 deficit, his running essentially ceased for good after he returned.
“I thought with the running back being out, I thought (Robinson) would’ve got more touches, because he’s a playmaker, he’s a good athlete, good player,” said Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson. “And I don’t know, it was a shock.”
Johnson said the game plan was to keep Robinson in the pocket, and the Crimson Tide did that well.
Perhaps, then, the quarterback’s woes on the ground can be partially explained by his inability to make Alabama respect him through the air, save for the pass to Gallon and a 44-yard touchdown to junior Devin Gardner. Overall, he went just 11-for-26 with two interceptions.
Robinson didn’t question the game plan, instead saying he and his teammates just needed to improve.
“Everybody has to focus up and listen to our coaches,” Robinson said. “I know Coach Borges has a lot to say to me, because I didn’t play well.”