Michigan needs Robinson to play new role

"This was the worst game of my career." -- Denard Robinson, Sept. 22, Notre Dame Stadium

Not surprisingly, this was the Robinson quote that made the rounds nationally after Michigan's 13-6 loss to Notre Dame. While the Michigan senior quarterback merely confirmed what everyone who watched the game had been thinking, he publicly took accountability for a horrific evening in which he committed five turnovers -- four first-half interceptions and then a fumble in the red zone as Michigan tried to mount a comeback in the third quarter. After two signature performances against the Irish, Robinson finished his career against Notre Dame with a thud.

A different Robinson quote flew under the radar after the game, one that might puzzle you at first but end up making sense when assessing Michigan's quest for a Big Ten championship.

"I should have just played a role," Robinson said. "Just a role. I'm a role player sometimes."

Thousands of terms have been used to describe Robinson during his truly unique career at Michigan. Role player certainly isn't one of them. There might not be less of a role player in the entire Big Ten -- and perhaps the country.

Robinson has been Michigan's main event for the past three seasons. He never leaves the spotlight, whether he's zooming past doomed defenders for long touchdown runs or throwing jump balls to the opposing secondary. The Big Ten doesn't have a more recognizable player in college football. President Obama has yet to drop Braxton Miller's or Montee Ball's name in a speech, as he did Robinson's in January at Michigan.

But Robinson has been a player of extremes throughout his time in a winged helmet. We've seen Good Denard and Bad Denard, Clutch Denard and Bang-Your-Head-Against-A-Wall Denard -- sometimes, all in the same game. It's why we can't take our eyes off of him. It's why he can commit four first-half turnovers and not worry at all about being benched.

Every snap Robinson takes can be a defining play -- for either team.

He has delivered highlights and records by the bunches. And also interceptions, 38 in three-plus seasons. He never had thrown four picks in a game before Notre Dame, but he had been close. Several Big Ten coaches whose teams picked off Robinson multiple times told me their squads should have had several more against No. 16.

Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg tweeted Sept. 22, "I doubt any player in college football history has played as great and as poorly against one team as Denard Robinson against Notre Dame." But in many ways, Robinson's career against the Irish encapsulated who he has been at Michigan.

The Wolverines have ridden the roller-coaster "Unlaced" for more than three years. But the wild ride doesn't lead to Indianapolis.

Michigan's top goal of a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl remains very much on the table despite its 2-2 start. Robinson's miscues in South Bend overshadowed some positive developments from the Wolverines that suggest they'll be right in the mix for a Legends Division title. The defense shut down Notre Dame for most of the game, seeming to turn a corner around the same time it did last season. The offensive line began imposing its will in the second half, as running back Fitz Toussaint racked up 56 of his 58 rush yards in the final 30 minutes.

In this year's Big Ten, where there's no dominant team and two ineligible ones, a stout defense and a serviceable running game can take you a long way. But one of football's undeniable truths is that turnovers will kill you. Michigan was extremely fortunate to win 11 games in 2011 despite 15 interceptions from Robinson. He's already ahead of last year's picks pace. As good as Robinson can be, Michigan cannot live with the bad and expect to win a league championship.

What's the solution? Maybe Robinson needs to become less of a difference-maker and more of a role player, as he said after the Notre Dame game. This new role doesn't preclude him from breaking free for a long touchdown run or making clutch throws in the fourth quarter. But Michigan needs consistency and reliability at quarterback. The Wolverines can survive with some non-spectacular performances from Robinson, as long as they don't include turnover binges.

Will Michigan need Robinson to win a big game or two to claim a Big Ten title? Perhaps. But the Wolverines could be good enough elsewhere to get by with some solid stat lines from their quarterback.

Whether Robinson can play the new role and go from a man of extremes to a steady senior remains to be seen. He showed glimpses of growth toward the end of the 2011 regular season, although he struggled in the Sugar Bowl and was repeatedly bailed out by receiver Junior Hemingway.

Robinson and the Wolverines resume play Saturday at Purdue in a huge game for both teams. We'll find out a lot about how he responds from the Notre Dame nightmare.

The wild ride has been fun, but a Big Ten title will be more fun for Michigan.

To get to Indianapolis, Robinson must take the road less traveled -- one with fewer bumps along the way.