September 26, 2011
Adjusting to the weekend's new realities.
Shortly after Al Borges was introduced as Michigan's new offensive coordinator in January, he pledged to replace the "All Denard Robinson, All the Time" philosophy that produced the Big Ten's No. 1 total offense in 2010 with "a more balanced, pro-style approach," the better to suit Borges' own philosophy and to keep Robinson in one piece by reducing his carries:
"To a degree … we're blowing a lot of [the offense] up," Borges told the Detroit News. "In our offense, I don't see Denard rushing for 1,700 yards, and I told him that. But I could see him rushing for 1,000 yards, and I could see him throwing for that 700 or 800 he didn't rush for.
"They were tattooing him. I came at him that way — we can save you a little bit. Everybody knew Denard was the show. He's tough, he's smart and he's athletic, and we have to get the most out of him."
Well, so much for that. Not only are the Wolverines still spending almost all their time in the shotgun: Against Borges' old team on Saturday, Robinson ran 21 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-7 win over San Diego State, his second consecutive game with 20 carries against an overmatched, double-digit underdog that Michigan had effectively put away by the end of the third quarter. Through four games, Robinson is on pace to run 231 times for 1,794 yards and 16 touchdowns — virtually identical to his rushing numbers in 2010, and a heavier workload than all but one running back in the Big Ten.
What has changed: So far, Robinson is nowhere near as efficient as a passer in Borges' offense as he was in Rich Rodriguez's. Outside of his X-Box-inspired miracle of a fourth quarter against Notre Dame — in which he was 7-of-10 passing for 202 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in "chuck it up and hope" mode — Robinson is completing 45 percent of his passes for 105 yards per game, with almost twice as many interceptions (5) as touchdowns (3) and a pass efficiency rating of 102.2, worse than all but one other Big Ten starter. He only completed one pass Saturday that covered more than 20 yards, a 32-yard, run-after-catch screen pass to Vincent Smith.
Not that there's anything wrong with that: Rodriguez's screen-heavy scheme rarely asked Robinson to throw downfield, and often made it really easy for him when it did. That worked out just fine. So far, though — assuming "chuck it up and hope" is not a sustainable model in Big Ten play — Borges' more conventional scheme has only confirmed that it makes no sense to ask Denard Robinson to be an under-center, "pro style" passer.
Which we knew, and which Borges has apparently accepted, based on Robinson's ongoing turn as a glorified single-wing halfback. Is that sustainable over the course of the Big Ten schedule, whole chunks of which Robinson missed last year with assorted bumps and bruises? The answer is the same as it was at this time last year: Only if the defense can keep a more conservative version of the spread 'n shred viable by keeping the offense out of shootout situations like the one it faced in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.
Last year, it couldn't, and the collective reaction was to commit to Getting Tough Again. But heading into conference play, the offense remains "All Denard Robinson, All the Time" out of the shotgun, and it's still wondering if the defense will continue to pull its own weight. If it can this time, it's a pretty safe bet no one's going to be complaining that they were promised beef.