Column: Denard Robinson bids adieu to Michigan Stadium on own terms
ANN ARBOR -- Denard Robinson came here because Michigan offered him an opportunity to play quarterback when most teams said he was anything but a quarterback.
He never pictured it all would end in this stadium at tailback. Or receiver.
But Robinson played both in Saturday's 42-17 win against Iowa, his farewell to the fans he dazzled at quarterback for four years. And in that way, it was an unnatural sendoff.
But he bid adieu on the field, overcoming adversity to do so. He made plays, adding a dynamic dimension to the Michigan offense. And in that way, he exited on his own terms.
He exited as himself.
"I think everybody knows, if they know me, I'll do whatever it takes for the team," Robinson said. "If I can go, I'm going to go and not hold back because I'll do whatever for this team. They're my family.
"When I had the time off and I couldn't play those two weeks, it was a bad feeling because I had never missed a game. I only missed one game, and that was like my first year of playing football. ... It was tough, but I got the chance to get back on the field. There was no question -- it was just, like, 'Let's go out there and have fun.'"
Robinson hadn't played for No. 23 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) the past two weeks after damaging a nerve in his throwing elbow. Junior quarterback Devin Gardner took over the offense, hardly skipping a beat.
The offense didn't miss Robinson much the past two weeks, but his absence remained notable. He represents the rise of this program, helping lead it from one Big Ten win his freshman season to a Sugar Bowl championship as a junior and a Big Ten title hunt as a senior.
He has had his own personal trials, such as the four first-half picks that cost Michigan earlier this season against Notre Dame. He's come under fire for his throwing and inconsistencies.
But Robinson has mostly dazzled en route to becoming the first Wolverines player to surpass 10,000 yards. He is the undisputed face of the program, a symbol for its rise back into prominence.
To not have him on the field for the final home game of his career, which at one point seemed likely, would have been travesty. Instead, though, Michigan unveiled new gadgetry that ensured Robinson would impact his final home game. And it provided some early fireworks.
Robinson took few snaps in warmups and appeared destined to watch again from the sideline. But Michigan had a surprise: Robinson had been cleared to play six days before, and was packaged in an offense that featured him at tailback, receiver and quarterback.
He lined up at tailback on the team's first play, carrying the ball for 3 yards and capturing everyone's attention. Then he caught a pass out of the backfield for 4 yards. He later took the ball from Gardner, then pitched it to Fitz Toussaint on an option. He rushed up the middle for 8 yards. He was part of a double-reverse.
And he uncorked a 40-yard run, showcasing that singular acceleration and moves normally executed with a joystick.
Robinson did a little bit of everything -- besides pass -- while the talented Gardner remained in the game. The senior racked up 98 rushing yards on just 13 carries, and also caught two passes for 24 yards.
It left unsuspecting Iowa dumbfounded.
Gardner knew it would, after the package carved up Michigan's defense in practice.
"It really worked on our defense -- they had a rough time," Gardner said. "Every time after practice we got in the locker room, and they'd say they had a problem with that. So that was enough for me.
"If they knew the next day it was coming, from the first day they saw it, and they still couldn't stop it, I felt (Iowa) would definitely not be able to stop it."
Robinson was employed as a decoy too, like late in the second quarter when he ran left to right and the defense swarmed him.
Except, tailback Vincent Smith was leaking back to the left. Gardner turned around, dumped it off to him and the senior was all alone for an unchallenged 18-yard touchdown.
Thanks to Robinson.
"They (keyed on Robinson) in practice, too," Gardner said. "Frank Clark -- we ran a tailback slow screen -- he's like, 'You know what's coming, you know what's coming,' and I was like, 'No, you don't. You have no idea. You think you do, but you don't.'
"And then we throw it right over their head. And it happened exactly the same way in the game today and we scored a touchdown."
The two-quarterback approach gutted Iowa for 513 yards and 42 points, the most allowed by the Hawkeyes this season. Michigan scored on its first six drives, each of which spanned at least 60 yards.
It was a massive surprise, and an even bigger success.
A residual effect: Ohio State's job just got a whole lot harder.
It has a whole new dimension of Michigan offense for which to prep, and only a week to do it before next week's showdown featuring the Buckeyes and title hopeful Wolverines.
Coach Brady Hoke said Robinson's elbow has improved and that although his throws aren't as sharp as normal, he's getting stronger. Hoke hasn't ruled out moving Robinson back to quarterback full time, although the senior's role is expected to remain a mystery until game time.
"You'll see next week," Robinson said with a smile.
Robinson didn't sail off into the sunset as quarterback. But he left his mark on this game, just as he has this program.
"It's hard to put into words what this means," he said after the game. "It's kind of hard to swallow right now because it's come to an end."
Robinson sang the fight song with the students after the game, then slowly made his way toward the tunnel, one of the last players to leave that arena. As he crossed from grass to concrete, the sun fading behind him, his heart was heavy.
"(I was thinking about) all the memories I have, and the teams, and just being with these guys and everything we went through, the ups and downs in this stadium," he said.