EVANSTON — Meet Bad Denard.
The erratic quarterback whose heart beats so fast it’s bound to pop out of his chest, whose thoughts race faster than his heart and whose feet would beat either in a race. How can you blame him when he doesn’t set his feet, doesn’t go through his progressions or misses open receivers? He can’t slow down.
He plays too fast, so his technique suffers. When his technique suffers, his passes do too.
His decisions are questionable. The spectacular play is forced and the simple play neglected.
Smacking his own helmet and clapping his hands when he came off the field Saturday against Northwestern, he knew it. His teammates knew it. They tried to console him, calm him down.
“Just do what you can do,” they said.
Bad Denard’s offensive coordinator, Al Borges, says the same thing after a bad pass: “Calm down and make the plays you can make.”
“We can’t have our QB, our leader, get down on himself because that will carry on to the team,” said senior running back Mike Shaw.
After he plays, Bad Denard rarely smiles. His voice is soft and low, nearly inaudible. He knows everyone’s right, that he does it in practice, that he is capable.
Bad Denard is the demon that has plagued Denard Robinson all season. He popped up in the first half against Notre Dame, for entire games against Eastern Michigan and San Diego State, and then Saturday, on the road for the first time all season.
Northwestern’s entire gameplan was to make sure Bad Denard made as many appearances as possible. The Wildcats stacked the box, daring him to throw the ball. Robinson saw it on tape, so he knew he’d have to win the game with his arm.
“That was our plan,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “He’s gonna throw the ball up there for you. We got three picks, we should’ve had at least five.”
Six games into the season, the formula is set — Michigan’s offense relies solely on Robinson. Defenses like Northwestern’s are going to make him throw the ball to beat them. The rest is up to the internal struggle of the 6-foot tall, 195-pound junior quarterback from Deerfield Beach, Fla. — who’ll win: Good Denard or Bad Denard?
This is the question Michigan coach Brady Hoke has to answer over the final six games of the season. How often we see Good Denard is the difference between one of the best college football players ever to play the game and a talented athlete whose legs bought him glory.
Good or Bad, he is the beginning, middle and end of the Michigan offense.
Good Denard steps into his throws, firing bullets between defenders.
In one instance, he hit Hemingway near the sideline with a laser, splitting zone coverage, then threw a perfect slant to Jeremy Gallon.
On the next play, with plenty of time to make a better throw or decision, Bad Denard stepped into his pass and sailed it way over Hemingway’s head for his third interception of the half.
Earlier, in a display of brilliance, Good Denard hit Hemingway on a beautiful pass, throwing the ball before Hemingway made his last cut towards the sideline.
The next play, Bad Denard threw off his back foot, letting it go before Hemingway finished his route. Interception.
The next drive, Bad Denard stepped up to run, then decided to throw the ball to Vincent Smith. But he didn’t set his feet and lofted a pass into double coverage for an interception in the redzone.
Fighting to find Good Denard, Borges sits Robinson down after plays like that: “What did you see? No, what did you actually see?”
Down 24-14 at halftime, Michigan’s defense hadn’t fared much better, but the offense could’ve pointed its finger squarely at Bad Denard.
“Well the coaches and the players, all of us look at each other (at halftime) and we know we’re going to hold each other accountable,” Robinson said.
That includes Bad Denard.
With his teammates chirping in his ear, with his coaches calming him down, Good Denard started the second half with two-straight completions to Roy Roundtree, including a 57-yard bomb. Northwestern was put on notice — the game was again in Good Denard’s hands.
Michigan scored touchdowns on four of its five second-half drives, and Robinson completed 7-of-8 passes for 139 yards.
“I did alright in the second half,” Robinson said after Good Denard beat Northwestern 42-24. “Started stepping into the throws like I’m supposed to, like coach told me to.”
Such is the case of Robinson’s season.
Fully aware of the battle between Good and Bad Denard, Robinson said he started Saturday’s game with that same fluttery excitement that built up before he played under the lights in week two on a national stage versus Notre Dame, a heated rival.
“Oh yeah, this is a Big Ten game,” Robinson said. “We’re trying to win the Big Ten — so yeah.
“I guess I get too excited. I just need to calm down.”
When he does, his arm is as dangerous as his legs, which accounted for 117 yards, including two 25-yard runs in the second half. His legs have scared the whole Big Ten into game-planning against them.
How good could he be if he routinely sets his feet, makes the right decision and takes advantage of the one-on-one opportunities defenses are spoon-feeding him?
What if his arm was just as dangerous as his legs, like in Saturday’s second-half?
“I’m not quite sure they made a whole lot of (halftime) adjustments,” Fitzgerald said.
“A young man named Denard Robinson — he’s pretty good. A pretty good player. The best that we’ve seen in a while. He was outstanding.”
This was said about a quarterback who threw three interceptions, yet created 454 total yards of offense — the third highest total of his already storied career.
Was he the hero? The goat? Or both?
For Michigan, as long as Bad Denard lingers, victories and games like these should feel cheapened, as simply signs of how legendary its star quarterback could be.
—Rohan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TimRohan.