Michigan QB Robinson says he's improved as passer
Michigan coaches and quarterback Denard Robinson acknowledged before the first snap of the season that it would take time for him to adjust playing in a new scheme.
They were right.
Robinson is running as well as ever, ranking fourth in the nation, to help the 19th-ranked Wolverines start 4-0 for the third straight year. But he's struggling with the pro-style passing game much more than he did last year in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.
He has completed just 49 percent of his passes - down from 63 percent last season - and his six interceptions are more than he had in September and October last year.
''I think numbers can lie,'' Robinson said. ''I think I'm better than I was last year.''
Robinson has gotten away with using his feet and up-for-grab passes, but good Big Ten teams will force him to beat them through the air.
Michigan might have one more chance to let Robinson tune up his game before the road gets rougher.
The Wolverines host Minnesota (1-3) on Saturday - their fifth straight game at the Big House - in a matchup they're favored to win by about three touchdowns. The Gophers have only one sack this season and are coming off a 13-point loss to second-tier North Dakota State.
Minnesota defensive end Ben Berry knows what it'll take to pull off the upset against Robinson.
''Stop the run, hopefully make him pass,'' Berry said.
The Gophers hope to have their athletic signal caller, MarQueis Gray, healthy enough to play after he was slowed during the week by a toe injury. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Gray set a school record for a quarterback by running for 171 yards against the Miami RedHawks in Minnesota's only win. A week earlier, he ran for 110 yards against New Mexico State.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Gray compares physically to former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison used the word ''dangerous'' to describe him.
''I'm not going to say he's Denard, but he has the same kind of mentality,'' Mattison said. ''He's going to run the ball. If there's nothing open and there's a lane, he's going to take off and that puts pressure on the defense.''
Like Robinson, Gray has been more comfortable running than throwing. He has barely connected on 50 percent of his passes and has thrown as many touchdowns (three) as interceptions this year.
''I think some of the things that Denard Robinson went through last year, even though he had a great year, I think that's what MarQueis is learning and going through this year being out there,'' Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. ''Every time he takes a snap, something new is happening and he's learning.''
If Gray can't go because of his injury, freshman Max Shortell will have to learn on the job again after showing promise in a second-half comeback that fell just short at USC in the opener.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill expects to be on the sideline just days after leaving the team seeking more treatment for seizures he's had the past three weeks. Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill insisted Kill's health has not been a distraction for the team.
''We've got other people who are dealing with that right now so we're doing what we have to do, doing what the coaches are telling us,'' Hill said. ''They're keeping us informed on everything that's happening and do what coach Kill wants us to do to get out there and execute.''
Minnesota spoke with Hoke before it hired Kill and before Hoke left San Diego State to coach at Michigan. Both teams are more interested in winning a game in which the Little Brown Jug, the oldest trophy game in major college football that dates to 1909, goes to the victor.
Michigan will defend it for the first time since 2008, hoping not to lose it for just the third time three-plus decades.
''That Brown Jug, it's pretty important to us,'' Hoke said. ''We would like to keep it here in Ann Arbor.''