Well, it wasn’t pretty, but Michigan got the victory against its in-state rival in what can best be summed up as a defensive battle. The stat lines were essentially the same for each team. Michigan was extremely balanced offensively, rushing and passing for 163 yards apiece (326 total), but probably not because it wanted to be. If you asked the coaches, they would likely tell you that if they could have more yards on the ground, they would have been ecstatic. MSU totaled 304 yards behind a good performance from quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who was 21-of-34 for 192 yards, one touchdown and an interception. The similarity in statistics goes even further: each team had the same number of first downs (16), same number of turnovers (one), same number of punts (seven), and almost the same number of penalties (six versus seven) and time of possession (28 minutes to 31).
So what we saw on Saturday were two pretty evenly matched teams. Michigan came out looking to contain MSU running back Le’Veon Bell, which it did to the tune of only 2.6 yards per carry, matching his lowest of the season. The plan was to force Maxwell to throw the ball to a group of young receivers and pressure Maxwell into making mistakes.
The MSU defensive game plan was similar – contain quarterback Denard Robinson and keep him from making big plays with his feet, and put pressure on Denard while keeping him in the pocket, hoping that he would throw some bad passes which the MSU defense could capitalize on. If you remember, this is what MSU head coach Mark Dantonio did last year. And the year before that. It’s also what he tried to do this season against Ohio State sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, except Miller threw the ball well that day. In fact, if you look at Miller’s passing stats from that game (16-of-23 for 179 yards, a touchdown and an interception), they almost mirror Denard’s on Saturday (14-of-29 for 163 yards and an interception).
So what is the point? While it didn’t appear to the average fan as if Denard played that well yesterday (because he wasn’t running all over the field at will like he did in every game besides the Alabama game against below average defenses), he did what he needed to do to direct the offense down the field against the second best defense Michigan has seen this season. Denard’s only turnover was a meaningless interception on the last play of the first half. He did a nice job of not getting frustrated when the read-option didn’t open up for most of the game. A younger, less mature Denard would have tried to make a play himself by keeping it even when the read said that he shouldn’t. The less-polished passer in the Denard of even a year ago would have rushed his throws or not carried out a quality fake on the play-action passes which Michigan had success with. MSU wanted Denard to lose the game for his team, but that is not the type of guy who is behind center for this Michigan team. Give credit to offensive coordinator Al Borges for not giving up on the game plan and staying with the offense that he has had success with all season. Unlike last year, Borges stayed with Denard and his abilities and called the plays that complimented Denard’s skills.
Earlier in the year, I talked about Denard’s improvements as a quarterback and how hard he worked to become the player that he is today. Games like the one against MSU are why we can be thankful that Denard is the way he is: a leader, a worker, and a quarterback. Over the last four years since Denard’s arrival, in a time when Michigan football experienced one of its worst periods in history, Denard provided a reason for Michigan fans to be excited about Saturdays. He’s not ever going to be compared to the great Michigan quarterbacks of old for the number of touchdowns he threw or the number of yards he passed for. What he should be remembered for is how he led this team threw the adversity. Adversity like the Wolverines faced this weekend. Denard didn’t do anything real flashy, but he made plays when he needed to and kept his team in the game the entire time. One guy who is happy that he won’t have to face Denard again is Dantonio, who said after the game, “I’m glad he’s gone.”
Denard and the Wolverines will face more adversity next weekend in a night game in Lincoln, Neb. The infamous ‘Blackshirt’ defense is no longer what it was in the 1980s and 90s, as the Cornhuskers are giving up almost 28 points per game and have been hurt by athletic quarterbacks this season (see OSU and Northwestern). Denard’s leadership this week will be important as the team gets ready. Not because Nebraska presents an impossible challenge, but because they have to go on the road into a hostile environment after winning an emotional game against their second biggest rival. It’s a classic ‘let-down game’ scenario and one in which Denard and the team will need to avoid falling prey to if they want to keep their hopes alive for a Big Ten championship.