Michigan Football: Denard Robinson Has Growing Pains Against Spartans

Jacob StutsmanCorrespondent IOctober 11, 2010

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines drops back to pass in the second quarter during the game against the Michigan State Spartans on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

From the beginning Saturday, Michigan did not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This was immediately apparent after the first two scoring drives were quickly dashed up upon the rocks by unscrupulous mistakes. Both an interception and overthrown pass conspired to keep the advantage at a mere three points.

The 138 yards gained during the first two drives were essentially empty yards. They filled out the stat book, but did very little to advance the score. When the defense pitches a shutout in the first quarter, Michigan must spot itself a 10- or 14-point lead. This is vital to the strength of the team, because eventually, the defense is going to make a catastrophic mistake that cedes points to the other team.

The opportunity for Michigan to take a commanding lead came during a 17 minute stretch in which the Spartan running game was held largely in check, but once Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell broke past the line of scrimmage, the linebackers were badly prepared to stop them.

Obi Ezeh had vacated his position on both of the two long touchdowns runs, and on a few of the pass plays, some of the younger defensive backs seemed indecisive and gave up huge receptions. I also note with bitter irony that in some perverse fashion, the Sparty false start in the second quarter was the impetus that allowed them to take the lead for good.

Michigan is not quite good enough to tolerate long scoreless stretches like these. A lot of people are simply going to attribute many of the mistakes to the Spartan defense forcing Robinson into throws that he could not make. It is true that the first two interceptions were made in tight coverage and required accuracy to complete, but he has demonstrated remarkable accuracy in the past, even if he is at times inconsistent.

However, the final interception was not a decision that I have come to expect Robinson to make this year. It was first down; there was no reason to take the risk. He is usually more methodical than that, and the pressure coming from the Spartan pass rush was relatively modest. It seems to me that he might have underestimated the help in the secondary.

Chris Rucker demonstrated some of the best recognition and closing speed that Michigan has faced so far this season. It's not the kind of good defense you see with a surfeit of Indiana and Bowling Green on the schedule. Even Notre Dame basically allowed receivers to set up comfortably in or run through the middle of soft zones.

Another worrying trend: Up until Saturday, Michigan was converting 54 percent of its third-down opportunities, but against MSU, the team only made two out of 11 attempts, and five of the misses were on third downs of less than five yards (then again, they weren't great against Notre Dame on third downs either).

Beyond the first quarter, Michigan simply failed to control the line of scrimmage. Schilling, Omameh, and even Molk were all beaten one-on-one at various points during the game.

The excessive penetration rarely allowed Robinson to get out into space, where he does most of his damage. He has had 11 plays for more than 20 yards this season, but against the Spartans, his longest run was just 16 yards. Even the one long pass he completed—the 51 yard reception made by Odoms—didn’t translate to a single point.

This wouldn’t be quite so damaging had Michigan been able to pick up the yards on third down when it needed to, but in total, they rushed for a full two yards below the season average, and Robinson was sacked for only the second time all season. Shaw played well, but only had four carries.

I don’t believe the well-worn cliché that a team can show the world how to beat a certain player. It’s not about strategy: Robinson’s weaknesses are obvious to anyone who has ever watched him.

It’s about talent and discipline and schemes, all of which MSU excelled in. They used their skill to capitalize on his limitations. This is not something that every team is equipped to do. This was the lowest rushing effort of the season and the second lowest passing effort. Michigan couldn't find too much to exploit.

However, I definitely think that people were under the impression that Michigan would be able to run for big numbers on just about anybody. This no longer seems to be the case. Part of this is simply the competition.

Sparty, which definitely looked like the old Sparty in the early part of the season, now seems resplendent since the fake kick in overtime that knocked off Notre Dame, a team that Michigan also narrowly beat. MSU definitely looks like an early contender for the Big Ten crown, regardless of how they finish the season.

Unfortunately, Michigan is going to play a number of good run defenses in the following games. Iowa, whom we will play next week, is now the second best in the nation at stopping the run. Robinson must overcome his problems and excel. The scrutiny on Robinson is obviously intensified by the failure of the defense, but he must be held to a high standard either way.

This is the juncture in the season when Forcier began to fall apart last year. Robinson has already demonstrated enormous potential. His ability to bloom the rest of the way will be pivotal to Michigan’s success.