Fourth-and-inches call goes awry

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan lined up with inches to go for a first down with a play its coach, Brady Hoke, insisted worked time and time again, both at San Diego State and through six games this season. The Wolverines, who had been outplayed all day and in every way by rival Michigan State, somehow had put themselves 9 yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown.

With a little more than six minutes to go on Saturday in Michigan State's 28-14 win over No. 11 Michigan, Denard Robinson lined up under center and snapped the ball. Everyone inside Spartan Stadium, from fans to even Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, was sure Michigan would run.

They were all wrong. And in calling what Michigan called, so were the Wolverines.

Robinson play-faked to his running back and dropped back to pass. Johnny Adams, the Michigan State cornerback, almost couldn't believe it. No one had touched him, and Robinson didn't see him until the last second.

So Michigan's potentially successful play turned to failure. Fast.

"I did think they were going to run the ball," Adams said. "So it was a good outcome for us."

Frankly, it would have made sense. Michigan hadn't been able to pass the ball in a whipping wind Saturday, completing 12 of 31 passes and seeing almost any lofted ball end up yards away from where it was expected to land.

Sure, Michigan State's defense had bottled up Robinson most of the day. But needing about 6 inches for a first down, down 21-14, the smart play for the Wolverines would have been to run the ball.

And in a season where almost every decision Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has made has been a correct one, this call made little sense.

Adams came free. Robinson, who so often in his two years as Michigan's starting quarterback had taken plays left for dead and turned them into Michigan magic, had no shot.

He was cornered. After the play and Hoke's first loss in his Michigan career, the coach said there were other things Michigan could have done. But he defended Borges' call. Hoke cited many first downs -- and even touchdowns -- scored using the same play.

"Yeah, you sneak it, you run power play, multiple things that you could do," Hoke said. "But we've been very successful, really, the last two years, with that same play."

Not on the most critical drive of Michigan's season-to-date Saturday. Hoke said he gave Borges the go-ahead to go for it on fourth down -- after that, the call was Borges' to make.

The most amazing thing of the entire sequence is that it is debatable whether the play even should have happened. Before the ball was snapped, Hoke was on the sideline frantically trying to call for a timeout.

He didn't get it -- and actually thought the play clock might have run out, which is why he was trying to call a timeout.

"The 25-second clock was going to zero," Hoke said. "I think we got away with one, to be honest with you."

Well, yes and no. Michigan ran the play. But to disastrous results.

Robinson started backpedaling, but Adams stayed with him and eventually grabbed onto him. The Spartans junior wasn't letting go, either.

Then again, Michigan State was a little surprised he decided to pass, anyway.

"But when the defensive line is changing the line of scrimmage and pushing them back in the second half, you have to understand that they have to do something," Michigan State defensive lineman Jerel Worthy said. "They have to figure out a way to counteract."

Michigan didn't.

So what was supposed to happen? What was the actual design of the play? Tough to say. Borges was not made available after the game. All Hoke said is it had been successful in the past.

Robinson, who admitted he didn't have time to do anything, didn't go into detail about the play either..

"If you watched the game, you would have seen what I was looking for," Robinson said.

All anyone in Spartan Stadium saw was a sack, one that virtually assured Michigan State of its fourth consecutive win in the series.

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