Column: Revamped offensive game plan helps turn Denard Robinson into 'road warrior'
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The last time we saw Denard Robinson was in a narrow hallway beneath Notre Dame Stadium, where he apologized to the world for the worst game of his career.
The scene beneath Ross-Ade Stadium couldn't have been any different.
Robinson was terrific in Michigan's 44-13 win Saturday at Purdue. He rushed for 235 yards -- becoming the Big Ten's all-time leading rusher at quarterback along the way -- and led the Wolverines' offense to three first-half touchdown drives to put this game out of reach early.
The Wolverines were a disappointing 2-2 in nonconference play, but are off to a resounding 1-0 start in the all-important Big Ten race.
After the game, he unzipped his pullover jacket while speaking with reporters to reveal a camouflage tank top that had one simple message: "Team 133 Road Warriors."
"This is how we want to defend the road," Robinson said. "We want to be road warriors, so that's how we look at it. We want to go hard every time we step on the field and every time we go on the road.
"We have to be road warriors."
To this point, he -- and Michigan -- had been anything but.
On this night, they were all that and more.
More than anything, it was Michigan's revamped offensive game plan.
The Wolverines had been averaging more than 40 points at home under offensive coordinator Al Borges, but just 20.9 away from Ann Arbor. They were a sparkling 10-0 at home in that time, but 3-4 away from the Big House.
Borges did a lot of self evaluation during the off week, and realized he had to change his playcalling to put Robinson in better positions to succeed. He noted too often Michigan was attacking opponenents vertically in the passing game, and had gotten away from the run.
That happened in that ill-fated first half against Notre Dame, when Robinson racked up four consecutive picks in a 13-6 loss.
Against Purdue, it was back to basics. It signals a shift in offensive philosophy -- and so far, a successful one.
Michigan rushed 28 times in 36 first-half plays, with Robinson getting 14 of those touches. He gained 84 yards, as the Wolverines held a commanding 6-minute, 42-second edge in time of possession.
They jumped to a 28-10 halftime lead that proved insurmountable.
"When you're playing on the road, controlling the football and running the football has got to be a big part of your mind-set," coach Brady Hoke said. "So, we had that mind-set, as coaches, going in that we wanted to run the football. We wanted to get him established enough.
"When you run the football, you have a chance to take the crowd out of the game, to some degree, because when those chains are moving, people get a little frustrated."
Michigan set that tempo on its first possession, churning out a 17-play, 78-yard game-opening drive that sucked up nearly 9 minutes. It ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Fitz Toussaint.
The Wolverines rushed 14 times on the series, and passed just three times.
"I think we went off how we were playing today," Robinson said of the altered game plan. "We played well running the ball, and we kept doing it, and we took some shots when we needed to.
"I want to be accountable for the team, so when I stepped out there today, I said, 'I'm going to be accountable. I'll do whatever it takes to win for Michigan,' and that's what I did."
When Michigan did pass, it was almost always short to intermediate stuff, which helped limit the risk for interceptions. Robinson completed just 8-of-16 passes for 105 yards, but didn't have a single pick.
He entered the game with 13 in seven road games under Borges.
Robinson even threw away the ball at one juncture, something he previously had been resistant to do.
"When I did realize it was zero blitz, I got outside the pocket (and) I knew I had to throw it away," he said. "Tried to buy time to throw it to Devin (Gardner), because he was open, but I just threw the ball away. I was just like, 'All right, we're in field-goal range, so let's just kick a field goal.'"
Brendan Gibbons hit it, one of his three on the day.
Robinson wasn't the whole story. He was backed by another terrific performance by the defense, which didn't allow a first down until the second quarter and held Purdue to 1-of-11 on third down. The Boilermakers finished with 213 yards of offense.
Cornerback Raymon Taylor had a pick-six, one of four takeaways on the day for the Wolverines.
That makes it back-to-back impressive performances for that defense, which is playing its best ball heading into next week's game against Illinois.
Michigan's Big Ten title hopes remain intact, but still must travel for games at No. 21 Nebraska and No. 12 Ohio State. It will have to be road warriors if it is to earn its first trip to the league championship game.
And on this day, they were just that.