Running of Robinson lifts Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For a while it wasn't pretty. Downright ugly, actually. But what saved Michigan's football team Saturday afternoon was what rescued the Wolverines last year, too.

The legs of its quarterback, Denard Robinson.

For the two games leading up to Michigan's 31-3 win over Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines' offense had not run much of what it wanted -- fewer than 50 plays in both games, barely dipping into the offensive package coordinator Al Borges scribbled together in the offseason.

Having run more plays Saturday -- 69 of them -- one thing became evident: Michigan headed backward to move forward for its immediate future.

This sounds familiar. Robinson left. Robinson right. Robinson up the middle. Robinson looking like a replica of the quarterback in former coach Rich Rodriguez's spread option offense a year ago instead of any inclination of being a pocket passer.

Robinson sweeping away any misconceptions of what he does well and what needs work. His feet -- good. His arm -- not so much.

"I always have room for improvement," Robinson said. "That's the biggest room."

Statistics agree. Robinson ran 26 times for 198 yards and a touchdown. He also completed just 7 of 18 passes for 95 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

As a team, Michigan (3-0) gained 376 yards rushing. It threw for 95 yards.

The former is expected. Robinson is a special runner. He moves faster than any quarterback in college and possibly any player, period.

He had one play in the second quarter where he ran right off a sweep, saw Eastern Michigan (2-1) block the lane, so he turned left and took off. Then he stopped for a split-second to turn his body, fake cutting inside before eluding two more tacklers.

He bends his body like Gumby while on the move, a dreadlocked blur of blue cutting and maneuvering through defenses like he's being controlled by someone else instead of his own brain.

Evidence? When asked about one of his runs and how he made defenders miss Saturday -- he had six runs of 10-plus yards including a 52-yard scamper that helped turn the game -- he was puzzled.

"Which one you talking about?" Robinson asked, honestly.

"The longest one, I believe," the reporter responded.

That one -- the 52-yard one -- came after a Thomas Gordon interception of an Eastern Michigan double pass in the second quarter. It was the first play in a 97-yard drive featuring five Robinson runs and two Robinson passes to tight end Kevin Koger, including a 9-yard touchdown.

It gave Michigan a 7-3 lead and helped turn the game.

For all the running positives, there are a lot of passing negatives.

He missed receivers often. A week ago, those receivers made Robinson look good by winning jump balls between defenders in a 35-31 win over Notre Dame. On Saturday, the receivers couldn't do it again. Robinson threw behind receivers often -- hitting a receiver in stride on two of his seven completions.

He badly overthrew open deep passes, including a play in the second quarter where he overthrew Junior Hemingway, who had a step on his man.

This isn't what Michigan coach Brady Hoke wants. It isn't what Borges wants, either. They would like Robinson to run about 15 times a game. It'd mean more carries for the tailbacks and more completed passes to the receivers.

There's another reason, too. Michigan struggled the past two seasons under Rodriguez, in part, because the quarterbacks took too many hits, couldn't stay healthy. So far, Robinson has been fine.

But there's still nine games left. At least.

"We don't want to get him beat up," Hoke said. "We're going to play in a pretty physical league so we have to make sure we get it other ways."

Some of that will come from the running backs. Junior Vincent Smith had 118 yards and Fitzgerald Toussaint had 46. But for Michigan to have the offense it craves, it needs more consistency from Robinson in the air.

The potential, though, is there. Robinson's touchdown pass to Koger was accurate. His 19-yard touchdown pass to Drew Dileo in the third quarter -- Robinson called it a read -- was both wide open and perfect, his best throw of the day.

But this isn't easy. Hoke admitted as much, that convincing Robinson to trust what he sees and when to run versus taking off at the first sign of trouble is still his biggest issue.

"It always is," Hoke said. "When you've got a guy who can make multiple plays because of his athleticism, there's no doubt it is a little more difficult.

"He's done a nice job. We just have to keep working it. He has to keep working on it and focusing and concentrating on that improvement in his game."

It's just whether or not Robinson can be consistent enough with it -- both what he reads, how he trusts his feet and how he throws -- to make a difference.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.