Michigan's Robinson lights up Irish

BY foxsports • September 11, 2010

As mythmaking moments go, they don’t come any more ready-made than this: Notre Dame Stadium, under a minute to play, a desperate drive into the screeching student section and the outstretched arms of Touchdown Jesus.

Pick your hyperbole. Whatever the word, it fit. Such is the overwrought state of the Michigan football team. The Wolverines had spoiled a two-touchdown lead and were on the verge of a loss that would have amplified the in-and-out drumbeat for the dismissal of coach Rich Rodriguez.

Every last one of the 80,795 in the old bowl knew the outcome rested on the head, arm and feet of UM quarterback Denard Robinson. The ball rested at the Irish 17. Third-and-five with 51 seconds left. At that moment, he was the effective caretaker of the winningest football program in the land. His response to such pressure was curious – but, to those who know him, predictable.

He grinned.

“I winked at him to let him know, ‘I’m going to be open on this play,’” wide receiver Roy Roundtree said. “He smiled at me.”

Oh, to be so good, so confident, so positively electrifying.

Robinson delivered a strike on that snap, hitting Roundtree underneath for a 15-yard completion. Michigan was at the Notre Dame 2. To anyone who has been paying attention, the next play was academic. Robinson plunged ahead for the final six feet of his record day.

The final score was Michigan 28, Notre Dame 24. But the most memorable number on this day was 502. That was Robinson’s total yardage – 258 rushing, 244 passing.

They’ve been playing football in Ann Arbor for a while. Never, ever, has a kid in a winged helmet done something like this.

“I’m speechless right now,” the hero said. “I really don’t know what to say right now.”

He doesn’t know what to say? A good many of us who are paid to describe what we see on fields of play struggled to find the right words on Saturday afternoon.

To say Robinson’s performance was merely “historic” would be a great disservice. The numbers on a page tell us that much. The opponent, the stage, the direct impact on Rodriguez’s job security, the winning score with 27 seconds left – there is a special place in college football lore for something of this ilk.

Talk of a Heisman run does seem premature, when considering Rodriguez didn’t anoint Robinson the starter until he jogged onto the field with the first string in Game 1.

But if he keeps cranking out 300-plus yards every week while Michigan wins nine games, he will belong in the discussion.

On his way to the bus, Michigan offensive tackle Perry Dorrestein was asked what the Denard-for-Heisman promotional material might look like. He thought about it for a minute.

“R-U-N,” Dorrestein replied with a smile, “underlined three times, with a couple exclamation points – and his face.”

Not bad. Robinson, after all, is known for his ability to R-U-N. He set a Notre Dame Stadium record with his 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

But here’s the thing: Robinson isn’t merely a tremendous athlete who runs first, second and third. He’s showing he can throw the ball downfield. The final pass to Roundtree wasn’t his only artful completion of the day. Robinson hit on his final five pass attempts during the winning drive.

Robinson accounted for 68 touches overall – 28 rushes, 40 pass attempts. It’s reasonable to wonder whether he can maintain this workload during the rugged Big Ten schedule. He missed one snap Saturday after hitting his head and feeling “a little” dazed. Stay tuned.

He didn’t appear concussed during the fourth quarter, when his play prompted Notre Dame play-by-play man Don Criqui to declare we were witnessing “one of the great performances in the history of college football.”

It was sublime, in part, because Robinson did the simple things well. For the second straight week, he didn’t turn the ball over on a fumble or interception. College football is kind to teams that have the best athlete on the field and secure the ball.

So now Michigan is 2-0 – a better 2-0 than last year’s 2-0, which ultimately became 5-7. Saturday was the (new) biggest win in Rodriguez’s three seasons in Ann Arbor. A segment of the school’s alumni hasn’t embraced the coach and probably never will. Not a Michigan Man, they say. Plus, there is the none-too-small matter of NCAA violations on his watch.

But the discord apparently hasn’t affected the players on the field. The Wolverines, while flawed, are playing with cleats afire, proving what we already knew – university politics are of little interest to 21-year-olds. It’s far more important a team believes in the man barking plays in the huddle. With Robinson, that is absolutely the case.

“He’s a gladiator,” Dorrestein said, a little awe in his voice. “You know he’s going to hold onto the ball. He’s going to lower his shoulder for you. He’s going to get his nose bloodied for you. You respect a guy like that. It makes you want to work for him.”

Around 8 p.m., Rodriguez walked out of Notre Dame Stadium, in the very same direction that Robinson had led his team an hour before. A few dozen Wolverines fans were still there, giddy and eager to congratulate him. Rodriguez signed autographs, posed for pictures and wore a winner’s grin.

That’s how it feels to coach the best college football player in America right now.

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