Michigan’s season ended with the sight of Denard Robinson racing across the field, mouth completely agape, screaming at the top of his lungs.

At that point — even having led his team to a 11-2 season and Sugar Bowl win — Michigan fans may have wanted to yell at Robinson as much as they wanted to scream with him. Though his two touchdown tosses to Junior Hemingway were crucial, his few mistakes were costly. Had Virginia Tech not struggled itself, Robinson could’ve been the scapegoat.

What other player could evoke such dichotic confusion?

Two reasonable people could have a conversation about Robinson’s Sugar Bowl performance — one could argue Michigan won the game because of him, the other that Michigan won despite him — and neither would be wrong.

The same conversation could’ve been had after a miracle comeback win over Notre Dame in September, or after a close — but not so close — road win at Northwestern in October, or after November games against mediocre Big Ten teams: a nail-biting loss at Iowa and a sluggish win at Illinois.

After each game, the Michigan brass pounded the table in defense of Robinson. He was improving, they said. Yet after Robinson ran across the field at the Superdome, once what happened had been digested, one couldn’t help but wonder if he had learned anything at all.

Every Tuesday during the season, offensive coordinator Al Borges met with the media. And every Tuesday, he defended Robinson, offering assurances that there was growth.

First, Robinson dragged Michigan down against Notre Dame, throwing three interceptions. Then, he willed 28 fourth-quarter points — his receivers simply started catching the risky jump balls he kept launching — and, ultimately, a win.

That Tuesday, Borges diagnosed a problem that would become a reoccurring theme.

“Generally, when he throws the ball bad, it is because of his footwork or rushing throws,” Borges said. “When he got his feet set, he made some really good throws. He threw just a gorgeous corner route to Kelvin Grady — right on time, perfect trajectory.

“He’s very capable, but he’s still learning all the nuances of the offense, and in a pressure-packed game like that, there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s easy to forget about some little things.”

A month later, Robinson threw three more interceptions against Northwestern’s 71st-ranked pass defense, and Michigan fell into a huge first-half hole. Again, Robinson jump-balled his way out.

Robinson said he got too excited early on. That Tuesday, Borges said his accuracy was off because he wasn’t following through with his hips.

“It’s a finesse art, and if you let your emotions override your fundamentals, like any other position, you’ll struggle,” Borges said. “Once he got a groove, it all changed. You could see it.”

Still, the identified problems persisted: inaccuracy, hurried throws, poor decision making.

Robinson’s madness boiled over at Iowa, where he marched Michigan to Iowa’s three-yard line late in the game — all the Wolverines needed was a touchdown to tie. In theory, he did his job. But he went 4-for-13 on the final drive. This time, he couldn’t convert, and he wasn’t the hero.

The next week, Borges refused to throw into the wind at Illinois. Robinson ran for two scores, threw a pick and left the game with an injury, all while playing second fiddle to an emergent Fitz Toussaint.

That Tuesday, Borges defied the statistics and nearly every outsider’s opinion, declaring: “Denard’s growing in our offense. Nobody wants to hear that.”

Borges’ vague claims that Robinson was gaining a better overall feel for the offense were justified in season-saving wins over Nebraska and Ohio State. Robinson finally looked comfortable, finding a balance between running and passing, and his precise passing screamed improvement.

Without linebackers breathing down his neck, it was easy to stand at a podium and say he was improving. He said he knew when to run, when to throw, and who to throw to. The other side of a transition year seemed in sight.

But that would’ve been too neat an ending for the kind of year Robinson had.

Instead, he regressed to midseason form in the Sugar Bowl — not quite as bad as his worst (Michigan State) but nowhere near his best. He reopened the conversation: is Michigan’s success because of him, or despite him?

The Hokies’ athletic defense and early lead neutralized Robinson’s legs, so the game rode on his arm. When Virginia Tech blitzed and Robinson felt pressure, which was often, his progress was most questionable.

Flushed out of the pocket, where it seems he forgets his throwing mechanics, Robinson lofted a jump ball — off his back foot — towards Hemingway. The ball should’ve been intercepted. Instead it was a 45-yard touchdown.

Earlier, as an unblocked blitzer approached, he lofted a ball towards a well-covered Hemingway (while Roy Roundtree had a step on his man further downfield) which resulted in an interception.

It reassured logic — not every miracle jump ball would go his way.

Later, staying true to the madness, Robinson — with a clean pocket and time to survey the field — dialed up a perfect pass to Hemingway in the back of the endzone, where only he could grab it.

Michigan took a 17-6 lead, but it could’ve been more. On back-to-back plays early in the game, Robinson missed adding another touchdown. The first was a pass — intended for a wide-open Hemingway — batted at the line of scrimmage, and the next was an off-balanced, underthrown screen pass to Vincent Smith, who had a host of blockers set up and no tacklers in sight.

Borges often referred to Robinson as a 3-point shooter, who needed to make a few shots before he caught fire. Then, Borges said, the basket would look like a hula-hoop, and Robinson could keep firing. Rarely this season did Robinson string together consecutive drives fueled by his passing.

For that, and the up-and-down Sugar Bowl, Borges is as much to blame as Robinson. The play calling didn’t give Robinson easy warm-up passes, and Robinson didn’t get hotter as the game went on — “luckier” may have applied, though.

Robinson’s mechanics proved as reliable as his passing statistics: a mixed bag.

To quell the criticism at his Tuesday press conferences, Borges pointed to how quarterbacks typically performed better in their second season in his system. His famous example is UCLA’s Cade McNown, who he said rose from last in passer efficiency in the conference in year one, to first in the country in year two. Borges hopes to see the same jump in Robinson.

Considering that bowl games are viewed as starting points for next year’s team, and how Robinson played Jan. 3, that may be a stretch. What Robinson did after four weeks of preparation — 9-of-21 passing for 117 yards — is alarming, and should open some eyes, no matter how respected the Hokies defense is.

What’s scarier is that Robinson opens his second season under Borges versus defending national champion Alabama. Albeit, their defense will be without Courtney Upshaw, the championship game’s defensive MVP, and likely without future pros Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick, among others.

Though if Robinson doesn’t find a consistent balance and comfort inside and out of the pocket, and in Borges’ playbook, it wouldn’t matter if the season opener was Alabama or Northwestern.

Soon after Robinson’s yell, Borges was asked what went through his head as Robinson continued to blindly throw up jump balls to Hemingway. The man who had coached Robinson for the past year, who taught him the intricacies of the offense and built a toolbox of mechanics, let his guard down: “Probably prayers,” he admitted.

After 13 games, even he didn’t know what to expect.

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu or on Twitter @TimRohan.

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