Senior day full of symbolism

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson waited patiently, flanked by media relations representatives one last time in Michigan Stadium. He remained on the field for his final time for a few more minutes.

Devin Gardner, the junior who replaced Robinson at quarterback, had to finish an interview first. When Gardner finished up he grabbed Robinson, pulled him close for a second and they embraced.

"Told him to keep going," Robinson said later. "Keep believing. Keep going. I'm behind you."

That happened both literally and figuratively Saturday in Michigan's 42-17 win over Iowa. For two weeks, Robinson was reduced to cheerleader, rooting for his friends and teammates while he sat out for the first games of his career since he started playing football.

In Robinson's final college home game, he sat a little bit, too, as the past, present and future of Michigan football all jumbled into one Al Borges masterpiece of a game plan 18 months in the making.

Gardner played quarterback and Robinson lined a little bit of everywhere -- starting at running back, catching passes as a slot receiver and also playing some quarterback himself. It was a defensive nightmare and also a changing of the quarterbacking guard at Michigan.

It was a change, like many things which end up having marked success, that almost never happened.

"If Denard hadn't gotten hurt, I'd still be playing receiver and we'd be winning games in a different fashion," Gardner said. "I never thought that I would be able to do things like this that I'm doing right now. I'm just thankful that I am taking advantage of the opportunity."

Gardner was handed that opportunity when Robinson couldn't grip a football after an ulnar nerve injury at Nebraska. Gardner picked up a victory on the road over Minnesota in his first start, a come-from-behind overtime victory over Northwestern in his second and then Saturday, when he and Robinson dominated Iowa together.

Gardner led Michigan to six touchdowns on its first six possessions, completing 18 of 23 passes for 314 yards, three touchdowns and an interception along with running nine times for 37 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson, in his new role, gained 98 yards rushing and caught two passes for 24 yards, all part of a day when Michigan gained 513 yards of offense, its most since it compiled 527 yards against Illinois on Oct. 13.

"We talked about doing this for 18 months," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Al, when he got home last week after the Northwestern game, that night, he had nine plays ready and he put six more in."

It created a 15-play package that had some elements of the deuce two-quarterback package Michigan ran with limited success last season. The difference came in Gardner's increased ability to throw the ball and Robinson's newfound ability to catch at least short passes -- the first two of his career.

The new package, once Robinson was cleared six days ago, allowed for him to play even though he still missed some velocity on his throws, evidenced in warmups when he tried to complete longer passes with little success.

By then, though, Michigan knew what it was going to do, knew Robinson was going to play and surprise most of the 113,000-plus in attendance. Robinson had no problem with it. After the past two weeks, all he wanted to do was play again.

And when he did, he showed that even though he couldn't throw as well as he wanted to, he could still run the way he always had. One of Robinson's catches harkened back to his first play from scrimmage inside Michigan Stadium, where he fumbled a snap and then ran for a touchdown against Western Michigan as a freshman.

On Saturday, he bobbled and then snagged a pass from Gardner, ran backward, turned across the field, ran all the way from the left side of the field to the right and then gained 20 yards before stepping out of bounds. It was the type of play only he could make, the type of play Michigan had become accustomed to in the past four seasons.

"I couldn't imagine what I would be," Robinson said, reflecting on the last four seasons. "I don't think I thought I would have had as much success that I had. I think God blessed me and gave me this opportunity to play and start for three years and just keep going on.

"Have an opportunity to graduate next semester. It's a blessing to be here. It means a lot. Means a lot."

To Michigan, Robinson has meant much more. He carried the Wolverines through one of the roughest parts of their modern history and led them out the other side, with an 11-win season in 2011 and consecutive undefeated home seasons.

And he left one final gift as he walked with fellow captain Jordan Kovacs down the sideline after the game was over, taking one last glimpse of the scene he helped create, one final gift as he heard one final ovation as he ran up the Michigan Stadium tunnel one final time as a Wolverine.

As he crossed from the light into the darkness, he went from the present to the past of Michigan football, ushering in its future along the way one final Saturday.