November 18, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Denard Robinson's return adds another wrinkle to stirring Michigan saga

Ann Arbor — One more twist, one more blurry surprise. Denard Robinson returned to the lineup just long enough to say goodbye, and to reaffirm what we already knew.

Robinson is a quarterback unlike any we've ever seen, except he left the Michigan Stadium field for the final time Saturday as a running back-quarterback-receiver, another intriguing wrinkle in a career of plenty. We saw practically a brand-new Michigan offense, with Devin Gardner excelling at quarterback and Robinson everywhere in the backfield, and the results were numbingly impressive.

The opponent was a sorry Iowa team, granted, but this wasn't about Iowa. Michigan's 42-17 romp was about looking ahead without looking past anything. By early in the fourth quarter, the "Beat Ohio!" chants had started in the stands. In the process of stomping the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines did what Brady Hoke always said they'd do — he gave the Buckeyes something to think about.

Whatever the impetus — a move out of necessity, a clever adjustment — it opens all sorts of possibilities. Gardner was spectacular in his third start, accounting for all six touchdowns (three by air, three by ground). Robinson, who missed two games with a nerve injury in his right elbow, rushed for 98 yards and caught two passes for 24.

Michigan (8-3) still has a shot at the Big Ten championship game if it wins at unbeaten Ohio State (11-0). Nebraska must lose to this same Iowa team, so good luck hoping for that. But the game is at Iowa, and a lot of defenses would've looked silly Saturday if the Devin-Denard package was sprung on them.

"It felt great because I knew they had no idea what was gonna come," Gardner said. "They thought they knew, and they'd always yell out, 'Denard's in the game!' But they didn't know what kind of play we were gonna run."

Keep 'em guessing

So, should this give the Buckeyes something extra to prepare for?

"Oh yeah, it definitely does," Gardner said. "Unless they don't want to, and that's fine with me as well."

If you wonder why Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't try it sooner, the truth is, they sort of did. Hoke said they started mulling it 18 months ago, but in its first incarnation, it was Robinson at quarterback and Gardner at receiver. Coming off an 11-2 season, it would've been foolhardy to move Robinson for the inexperienced Gardner.

Robinson's injury against Nebraska gave Gardner his chance, and when Robinson was cleared a week ago, Borges went to work. It's an amazing late-season adjustment, and give Michigan's staff credit for making it. While you're doing that, give Robinson credit for completely buying in. He always said he'd do whatever was needed and he kept showing it, right through his final game in the Big House, when he was the ultimate senior leader.

"When they said I couldn't play those two weeks, it was a bad feeling," Robinson said. "It was different for me, cheering them on, it was tough. When I got the chance to get back on the field, there was no question."

On the first play of the game, Robinson took a handoff from Gardner and ran for 3 yards. For nostalgia's sake, he also ran out of an untied shoe. On the second play, he caught a 4-yard pass.

Then, in the day's most tragic moment, Robinson took a handoff from Gardner and became an option quarterback. He pitched the ball to Fitz Toussaint, who rumbled for a 10-yard gain. But when hit, Toussaint suffered a gruesome leg injury, and after the game, Hoke somberly reported the running back already was undergoing surgery.

Some twists are horrible, some are inexplicable, some are fascinating. Robinson would shuttle in at times to play quarterback, but he never threw a pass. Gardner threw efficiently and accurately, and already looks like a star. He completed 18 of 23 for 314 yards and exhibits a cool presence in the pocket, capable of buying time with his legs.

One of the best reflections of Gardner's clutch ability was Michigan's third-down conversions: nine-for-12. One of the best reflections of Michigan's versatility came in the second quarter, when the score was 7-7. On third-and-1, Robinson took a snap out of the shotgun and dashed down the right sideline for a 40-yard gain, stepping nimbly out of bounds to avoid a hit.

So, Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes will have something to ponder this week. It's unclear if they have to be worried about Robinson ever throwing the ball. Hoke said he could, if necessary. Robinson said the elbow felt "pretty good," and when pressed on whether he could throw, he simply said, "You'll see next week."

One last hurdle

There's no reason for him to pass against the Buckeyes, right? Well, unless Michigan wants to avoid the predictability of a Robinson run. Or maybe that's part of the plan — to make the Buckeyes think Robinson can't throw, then throw it. Hey, anything is possible now with Hoke and Borges and a Michigan team that has targeted Ohio State and the Big Ten title from the first day.

"I think it'd be unjust for us not to use (Robinson) in the best way we thought would let him be the most successful," Hoke said. "He's throwing the ball a little bit, not a lot, so we thought this was the best. This kid has put up with a lot of criticism at times, and he's also been praised at times. He's a competitive guy who loves the game and loves his teammates. He showed great maturity the last three weeks and great leadership."

One more twist to a stirring saga. This was a day for Michigan to celebrate its seniors, to cap another unbeaten home schedule — 14-0 under Hoke — and to show how badly it wants to win. It started with the senior quarterback who holstered his arm and his ego and did whatever was necessary.

Robinson has been the face of Michigan football the past few years, fast to the end zone, fast to rise, fast to fall. The face is changing, from Denard to Devin, but Robinson isn't leaving without a final burst, defying labels to the end.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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Michigan's Denard Robinson, who split time between running back and quarterback, runs the ball in the first half Saturday against Iowa. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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