Michigan’s 4-0 opening in 2009 deteriorated into another bowl-less winter, but there’s far more optimism surrounding Rich Rodriguez’s latest perfect start - as long as Denard Robinson stays healthy.
Robinson left his most recent dynamic performance with a knee injury, but the No. 19 Wolverines should have the sophomore star back Saturday as they look to open Big Ten play with a 17th consecutive victory over Indiana.
Tate Forcier threw seven touchdown passes in his first four games as a freshman to lead Michigan to an unbeaten start last season, but that promising beginning quickly unraveled with a 1-7 finish.
Robinson has taken the reins in 2010 after seeing sporadic playing time as Forcier’s backup, and he leads the nation in rushing with 688 yards and 10 touchdowns - six on the ground - as the Wolverines are again 4-0.
After running for 127 yards and two scores in the first quarter of a 65-21 win over Bowling Green on Saturday, Robinson left after being taken down following a 47-yard run and didn’t return. Forcier went 12 for 12 for 110 yards and a score before also leaving with a knee injury, but the major concern was the status of Michigan’s budding Heisman Trophy candidate.
Robinson has a bruised left knee but should be fine, according to his coach. Rodriguez planned to lessen the load on Robinson during practice this week, but won’t let his star merely be a spectator.
“The quarterback especially has to stay in there to stay sharp,” Rodriguez said.
The Wolverines may not need a stellar effort from Robinson to beat Indiana (3-0). They’ve won the last 16 meetings by an average of 21.5 points, though they needed a late TD pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms to pull out a 36-33 win in Ann Arbor last Sept. 26.
That was Michigan’s only conference victory before the Wolverines ended up sitting out the bowl season for a second year in a row.
“It is a little motivation for us to keep working,” leading receiver Darryl Stonum said. “Last year we were 4-0. This year we’re 4-0. We can’t get big heads.”
While Robinson’s rushing has sparked the Wolverines’ hot start, Ben Chappell’s passing has done the same for the Hoosiers. The senior has thrown nine touchdowns without an interception, and his 296.7 yards per game through the air are tied for 10th in the nation.
He threw a career-high four TDs in a 35-20 win over Akron last Saturday, and didn’t waste much time looking ahead to the Michigan matchup.
“I watched quite a lot of film (Sunday), and I’ve tried to get somewhat comfortable with them,” said Chappell, who threw for 270 yards and an interception against the Wolverines last season. “They are similar to last year defensively. I think they’re better. I think they had a lot of young guys last year and they were getting used to that system. So, now they’ve had a year in it and they’re moving around a lot.”
Indiana hasn’t started 4-0 since 1990 and hasn’t won its Big Ten opener since 2000. The Hoosiers have a number of problems that need to be corrected in order to accomplish both Saturday.
Chief among Indiana’s issues is its average of 177.0 rushing yards allowed per game. That’s 92nd in the nation, a weakness that figures to play into Robinson’s hands.
“Everything has to be ratcheted up because (Michigan) is a team on a roll,” coach Bill Lynch said. “… Denard Robinson is scary good.”
The Hoosiers could catch one break with Wolverines tailback Mike Shaw, second on the team with 245 rushing yards, day to day with a sprained knee.
There’s plenty of room for Michigan’s defense to improve as well. The Wolverines have forced eight turnovers, but are 93rd in the nation with 400.0 yards allowed per game.
“We don’t want to be the Achilles’ heel of this team,” defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said.
Michigan’s 14-10 loss in Bloomington in 1987 was its only one in 16 games at Memorial Stadium, and its only defeat in the last 32 matchups.