September 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Denard Robinson's play masks Michigan's deficiencies, but Wolverines run with it

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson gets stopped short on third-and-1 against Notre Dame in the fourth quarter. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

South Bend, Ind. -- It's all moving quickly now, faster and faster, and there's no telling where it's headed next. This is becoming more than a quaint story about a quarterback who plays with his shoelaces untied. Denard Robinson is going somewhere in a hurry, and desperately trying to take his Michigan teammates with him.

On hallowed ground where crazy things happen and legends get life, Robinson ran like few ever have. He also threw. He also pooch-punted. He also deflected praise like a kid who'd like to have more fun before everyone starts telling him how good he might be.

It's only two games, and no one is declaring Michigan a powerhouse all of a sudden. Oh, and it was only a 72-yard drive in the closing minutes under immense pressure, and only a 2-yard run by Robinson with 27 seconds left to beat Notre Dame, 28-24, Saturday. And geez, it was only 502 yards of total offense by Robinson, including another school record (and Big Ten record) for rushing yards by a quarterback with 258.

Take it and run. That's what Rich Rodriguez is telling his team, and that's what it's doing, 2-0 now, with intriguing possibilities. For starters, yes, Robinson already is in the Heisman conversation. He has been amazing in two games, with 455 yards rushing. He doesn't want to hear it, and the Wolverines don't want to overstate anything, but let's be fair here. For all the hits they've taken -- and all the hits Robinson takes -- they're entitled to soak up some of this.

Robinson is special, obviously. It's way too early to say the same about the Wolverines, who have defensive holes and a super-shaky kicking game. They committed too many penalties, blew a 21-7 lead and caught a break when Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist missed most of the first half with a head injury.

Making opportunities count

But they're taking whatever is offered. The Irish couldn't keep up with Robinson, and now we wonder if Robinson can hold up and keep this up. He shrugs and says he's just a little sore, that's all.

His numbers are unreal, including an 87-yard touchdown, the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history. I asked him if he ever compares his totals to others.'

"No, I do not," he answered quickly. "I'm a team player. I don't worry about stats."

Robinson has a high-wattage smile that matches his game, and belies his low-key demeanor. When he broke the huddle for the final drive -- Michigan trailed 24-21 and sat 72 yards from the end zone with 3:32 left -- his message to teammates was a simple one.

"I said, 'It's time to put it in and put the game away,'" said Robinson, only a sophomore. "We let them stick around too long."

The Wolverines surely did that. But they didn't squander their opportunity, and instead stomped on the Irish's hearts for the second straight time. A year ago, it was Tate Forcier's touchdown pass with 11 seconds left that won it, 38-34.

A year ago, the Wolverines also started 4-0, then fell apart. But you're allowed to think this is different, because Robinson is completely different. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 244 yards and again didn't turn the ball over.

Can he hold up?

The Wolverines also are winning with a tremendously experienced offensive line and tough, speedy receivers. Are they missing a dominant running back? Yep. Are they young and thin on defense? Yep.

But we said all along, we needed to see Rodriguez's system once he got the type of quarterback he wanted, a quick defense-reader and quick runner. He has a fine quarterback trio, with freshman Devin Gardner at No. 2 and Forcier at No. 3, and Rodriguez admitted the depth gives him confidence to run Robinson so often, although it's still more than he'd like.

"I told you last week, we can't be running him 29 times again," Rodriguez said. "Well, we ran him 28. We're just trying to win the game. He'll get a few ice bags on him, sleep on the bus and rest up for the next one."

Robinson has started doing for Rodriguez what Pat White did at West Virginia. But because Michigan isn't packed at running back, Robinson has to do even more.

It helps that his running is impressively instinctive, not just about speed. It's impossible to be a one-man team in college football, but he's about to attract all sorts of national attention and Heisman talk. Teammates say Robinson is a weight-room stalwart, much stronger than his 6-foot, 193-pound frame suggests. So far, so true.

"Let's have a little caution here," Rodriguez said. "There are still going to be bumps in the road, and he's going to keep getting better. I'll bet you there's probably 12 to 15 plays that Denard will say, 'I missed it.' That's pretty exciting going forward for us."

Demonstrating poise

It's pretty startling, actually, to think what Robinson could do with more experience, because the poise is already there. On the winning drive, he snuck 1 yard on fourth-and-1, then made the play of the day, standing in against Notre Dame's blitz and firing a 15-yard strike to Roy Roundtree on third-and-5.

That put the ball at the Irish 2, and Robinson ran it on the next play. A long, wild afternoon ended with Rodriguez standing at the podium, happy to lift a foot and show his own shoelaces happened to be untied. That's the theme of every Robinson story, that he uses a Velcro strip instead of knotting the laces, and I have a feeling you'll hear it a bit more.

The Wolverines need to grow in several areas, no doubt, but until they do, they're certainly willing to strap on their laces and see where the kid can take them.

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

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