September 4, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Denard Robinson gives glimpse of long-sought Wolverines potential

U-M coach Rich Rodriguez hugs his quarterback Denard Robinson during Saturday's season-opening win over Connecticut. (John T. Greilick / the Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- That's how you sweep away questions, with the quickest pair of feet imaginable, with stirring bursts and throws that rechristened the new-age Big House with a new-age look.

Quarterback issue? Ha-ha, good one. Denard Robinson unleashed a remarkable show, an unprecedented show at Michigan, and for one rollicking afternoon, you saw flashes of what could be, what needs to be. The biggest crowd (113,090) ever to watch a football game, college or pro, had to look around and wonder where they were, and who this was.

This was Rich Rodriguez's offense unplugged, and while one game doesn't change everything, it sure changes the discussion. Robinson, the sophomore who famously doesn't tie the shoelaces on his cleats, showed he can tie a defense in utter, inexplicable knots.

Michigan slammed Connecticut, 30-10, Saturday, with Robinson running 29 times for 197 yards, a record for a Michigan quarterback. That was the speed everyone knew about. This was the arm rumored about -- 19 for 22 for 186 yards. If the kid can be that poised and accurate, oh my, look out.

Give Rodriguez and the Wolverines tremendous credit, not just because they faced immense pressure against a good opponent, but because of how they won. They grinded out 28 first downs. They punted only once. They committed only one penalty and incurred no turnovers or sacks. They completely stuffed what was supposed to be a punishing Connecticut offense, and they did it on an emotional day, when the renovated stadium was revealed.

After it was over, Robinson had one sprint left in him -- straight to the student section, where fans already were chanting "Beat the I-rish!" Notre Dame is next, and for this to truly be a big step in a turnaround, there have to be more steps.

"I knew I always could throw the ball, it was just a matter of getting the offense down pat," Robinson said after his first career start. "They told me to be ready, and I was ready."

So was the offensive line, which showed it could be the backbone of a team trying to rebound from 5-7 and 3-9 seasons. Even Michigan's inexperienced defense held its own, although it'll make people nervous.

It's always risky pinning so much on one guy, and you have to be careful. Just a year ago, we were chronicling another star-is-born tale, Tate Forcier. In Saturday's opener, Forcier didn't play, and has dropped to third string. When Robinson was shaken up briefly, freshman Devin Gardner went in.

Delightful debut

Players knew Robinson had earned the job, but Rodriguez kept it quiet until the night before the game. Of course, Rodriguez knew too, practically going back to spring camp, when Robinson began to assert himself.

In fact, Rodriguez didn't seem overly surprised his team came out and sprung a whooping on Connecticut. He had his players ready, and maybe the three-pronged quarterback competition pushed Robinson.

Robinson showed terrific glimpses of what Rodriguez craves, what he had when he won big at West Virginia with the great Pat White. This certainly wasn't the first time his speedy spread offense carved up the Big East Huskies. Asked if Robinson looked at all like White, the coach nodded.

"Yeah, he runs fast," Rodriguez said. "He's very similar to Pat because, at least today, Denard showed a sense of feel and maturity. When the game's going fast, it slowed down for him."

Robinson speeds up a game like few we've seen. The Huskies were getting so frustrated, Robinson said they started griping they were going to yank his untied shoes off.

Other teams will adjust, of course. And the amount of hits on Robinson could become a concern. But from the moment he stepped on the field and launched a 96-yard, 14-play touchdown drive, Robinson was in command. On the drive to a field goal that made it 24-10, he converted five straight third downs, three on runs, two on passes.

A running start

When he went down hard, "Shoelace" popped up quickly.

"He's a tough kid -- hell, he's tougher than I am," said center David Molk, who anchors the line. "We'd seen it in practice, but it was great to see it in a game. I can't wait to see what happens when he has more experience. There's nothing better than when you're blocking, and two seconds later, you look up and see Denard 20 yards upfield."

Most of the runs were planned, although 29 is a bit much. Rodriguez was in too good of a mood -- rightly so -- to quibble about that.

"If he can carry it 29 times for 200 yards, he'll carry it 29 times," Rodriguez said, smiling. "It is a long season and we play a lot of physical teams. But he's a very strong individual. He can handle it."

For one perfect afternoon, the Wolverines handled it all, right from the start, when former athletic director Bill Martin cut the ribbon on the renovation. Martin deserves credit because the stadium looks great. And when Brock Mealer, the partially paralyzed brother of Michigan lineman Elliott Mealer, got out of his wheelchair and walked to midfield, there was a feel-good vibe that couldn't be stopped.

New athletic director Dave Brandon was beaming afterward, and talked about watching a team play with a chip on its shoulder. You know what else there was? A quarterback with a strong arm on his shoulder, and churning legs that just kept moving. Robinson and the Wolverines will be tested more, but this was a heckuva running start.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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