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The Michigan Medley defends Denard after South Bend meltdown

September 24th, 2012 by Justin Potts


On a soggy field in South Bend, Michigan’s offense struggled to find consistency and turned in a charitable effort, giving the ball away six times en route to an Irish victory. It was the third game of Rich Rodriguez’s first season.

John U. Bacon’s book Three and Out revealed a striking account of the final moments and what happend in the locker room. Several Michigan players were seen laughing on the sideline in the waning minutes, and Rodriguez let the team know how he felt.

Denard had the worst game of his career, but also wasn't put in position to succeed (photo by MGoBlue.com)

“We’re losing the goddamned game, getting our asses kicked, and we’ve got two guys laughing over there on the sidelines,” Rodriguez shouted. “LAUGHING! We’ve got seventy guys out there busting their butts, right up to the very end, and a few guys who think it’s funny.”

The excitement of a new high-powered spread offense was still in its infancy, but on that day, with Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan splitting time under center and Sam McGuffie leading the offense, the performance was laughable – at least from the outside. But it was, perhaps, the first indication that Rodriguez would not last, whether it was his fault or not. He was, after all, working with players recruited by a different coach for a different system.

Four years and a new coaching staff later, the talent is much greater and expectations much higher, but the outcome was the same. Six turnovers let a very winnable game slip away in South Bend, but this time there was no laughing. Instead, there was a senior quarterback, the star of the team, who was recruited by the former staff and who was responsible for five of the six turnovers, making no excuses. And in doing so, providing a Tim Tebow-like sound clip.

“I forced a lot of throws, and I want to say sorry to everybody who watches football, who watches Michigan football, and who follows Michigan football,” Denard Robinson said. “I want to say sorry. It won’t happen anymore. I’m going to be accountable for the rest of the season.

“This is the most disappointed I’ve ever been in myself,” he continued. “In my 22 years of living this is the most disappointed I’ve ever been in myself.”

There won’t be a gaudy plaque bearing those words affixed to the side of Schembechler Hall, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Anyone who knows Denard’s improbable story can’t help but root for him to succeed. In an era of money- and fame-hungry athletes he’s the epitome of a student athlete, all the while being the star of the team. He’s set to become the first member of his family to graduate college, and he’ll have a shot at playing on Sundays, even if not at quarterback. All because he made the right choices.

Entering Saturday, Denard was poised to become one of the greatest heroes ever to put on the winged helmet. And he still may. But despite gaining more total yards against Notre Dame than any player in college football history and leading Michigan to two thrilling wins over the Irish, his legacy will be tarnished by Saturday’s performance.

On the same day he became Michigan’s career leader in interceptions thrown, he also became Michigan’s career leader in total offense. Mill that over for a second. In the 133 seasons that Michigan has been playing football, no player has accounted for more yards, and he still has 10 games to add to it. By the time he finishes his career, he’ll have amassed a total that will likely never be broken. And yet, he’s still one of the most polarizing players ever to don the Maize and Blue.

Joe Bolden and the Michigan defense was the bright spot of the game (photo by MGoBlue.com)

In the aftermath of the game, the following statements, and many more like them, showed up on my Twitter feed, all from Michigan fans:

“I’d take any QB over Denard honestly. I seriously don’t like him. Yeah he creates hype some games but I don’t like him.”

“Denard is simply NOT a QB…can’t wait till he’s gone to be honest.”

There were also comments about him being selfish. And frankly, I feel bad for the people who think this way.

In a sense, Denard is a victim of his own success. From his first snap, a 37-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan, he’s turned in more electrifying plays and moments than perhaps any player in Michigan history. Yet when he struggles, people turn against him, as if he’s inhuman. As if Brett Favre doesn’t have the most interceptions in NFL history. As if Peyton Manning didn’t throw three interceptions in the first quarter of last week’s Broncos game. As if Tom Brady has never had a bad game in his career. In fact, Brady has six career four-interception games and he’s widely regarded as the best quarterback in the league.

Denard isn’t anywhere close to Brady as a passer, but the point is that great players have bad games every now and then. Denard has been responsible for many more wins than losses and we will likely never see a player like him again in the maize and blue. Every player is worthy of criticism, but if you’d take any quarterback over him or if you can’t wait until he’s gone, please root for Michigan State this season and let me know how well you enjoy Andrew Maxwell.

The irony of Saturday, however, is that an ultra conservative game plan likely would have won the game. In last Friday’s game preview, I wondered whether Notre Dame’s strength was inflated due to Michigan State’s inflated perception entering the season. It looked like a signature win for ND in East Lansing a week ago, but was it really? I think we all – Michigan’s coaching staff included – bought into the “upset” as an indication that Notre Dame is for real. And don’t get me wrong; they’re a good team. But not so good that Michigan should not have won.

Al Borges essentially out-thought himself with his game plan. He assumed that it would take trickery and asking Denard to be Tom Brady to beat the Irish, when in reality, all it would have taken was to ask Denard to be Craig Krenzel. I don’t have a problem with the way Michigan started the game – a Devin Gardner pass to fullback Joe Kerridge on the second play – but when the opening drive didn’t yield points, the time for getting cute was over.

Not many quarterbacks will succeed in this situation (photo by Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

When Michigan wasn’t turning the ball over, the Wolverines moved the ball well, putting up 299 yards of offense despite giving it away six times. And the way Michigan moved the ball well was with designed runs and a short, safe passing game – Denard’s strengths. The turnovers came when Denard was asked to stand in the pocket, stare down one of the nation’s best pass rushes, make the right reads, and put the ball on the money.

Borges certainly doesn’t have an easy job, fitting in a player that possesses a completely different skill set than what’s needed for his offense. And next year, he’ll have a chance to get to work with his ideal personnel, but Denard is simply too good of an athlete and playmaker to take off the field. And so Borges needs to play to Denard’s strengths rather than try to fit him into the mold of a prototypical passer.

On this night, he didn’t, and Denard didn’t make the plays. After three years of getting the right bounces against Notre Dame (and all of last season), the bounces are bound to go the other way. While it’s easy to criticize play calling, if Vincent Smith isn’t about to get buried into the turf, it’s an easy touchdown pass. If Denard doesn’t uncharacteristically fumble inside the red zone, ending the best drive of the night, Michigan likely would have pulled within three, or at the very worst, settled for a field goal. If Devin Gardner had run his route full speed, he would have at very least broken up what was Denard’s third interception. If freshman safety Jarrod Wilson hadn’t been flagged for pass interference on third-and-goal, ND would have settled for a field goal instead of its only touchdown of the game. If a whistle from the crowd hadn’t stopped play, perhaps Fitz Toussaint would have broken off a big run. But it all happened, and none of it can be used as an excuse. It wasn’t Michigan’s night, and it all added up to a disastrous result that will have two weeks to fester before taking on a Purdue team that nearly beat Notre Dame.

The result wasn’t what any of us wanted, let alone those who it directly effects, but most of us didn’t expect Michigan to win 11 games again this season. And despite a 2-2 record, Brady Hoke’s stated goal – winning the Big Ten – is still very well within reach.

Let’s be thankful for a quarterback willing to stand in the face of criticism and accept¬†responsibility¬†for his performance. No, he’s not perfect, but I’d take him over any other quarterback in the Big Ten this season. He kept touching on accountability after the game and as a senior leader and team captain, I have no doubt that he’ll step up and perform. Michigan won’t go on to with the national championship this season, but while Tebow is now relegated to backup quarterback duty and running fake punts, Denard has 10 games remaining to cap off what has been a brilliant career. And I have a feeling his best – and career defining – moment is yet to come.