September 11, 2010

Michigan's Robinson rushes to front of Heisman race

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Meet the most exciting player in college football: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Notre Dame couldn't stop him Saturday. Not on an 87-yard touchdown sprint late in the first half that staked Michigan to a 21-7 lead. Not on a game-winning, 2-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds remaining to seal the Wolverines' 28-24 victory over the Irish.

"Everyone was ready for that drive," said Robinson, who saw Notre Dame take a 24-21 lead with 3:41 remaining before engineering his game-ending magic. "It was time to put it away. We had let them stick around too long."

Stop him? The Fighting Irish were just trying to slow down college football's latest superstar. They dialed up three-man rushes ... blitzes ... zone blitzes ... eight men in coverage. Nothing worked.

Robinson has sprinted to the front of the Heisman Trophy race. Against the Irish, he accounted for 94.4 percent of his team's yards, gaining 502 of the Wolverines' 532 -- with 258 coming on the ground (most ever in a game for a Big Ten quarterback) and 244 coming in the air.

"I'm speechless right now," said Robinson, who became the ninth quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for 200 yards in a game. "The offense came together."

Honestly, Michigan really doesn't seem to have much of an offense. The plays called were ordinary: read options, quarterback keepers, draws. But the guy running the plays was extraordinary.

It was a brand of football usually reserved for the backyard, recess and the front lawns of fraternities: Just give the ball to the fastest and most athletic person -- and stand back and watch him run.

Robinson far and away was the fastest and most athletic person on the field.

You don't so much coach a guy like Robinson. You just try to stay out of his way and not screw him up.

"Needless to say, our quarterback was special today," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez smiled. You would, too, if you had Robinson.

"He was really on as far as seeing the field," Rodriguez said. "And Denard only is going to keep getting better."

Robinson became a sensation last week in the first start of his career, earning Rivals.com National Player of the Week honors by setting a school single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 197 yards while throwing for 186 in a 30-10 win over Connecticut.

Now, two weeks into the season, Robinson has an incredible 885 yards of offense, with 455 coming on the ground (8.0 yards per carry) and 430 through the air (43-of-62, 69.4 percent, with two touchdowns and no interceptions).

"I don't know if I ever have had a quarterback account for that many yards in a game," Rodriguez said. "And I have had some good ones."

One of them was former West Virginia star Pat White. But it isn't fair to compare the two. Robinson already is better than White. And he's just a sophomore.

Robinson is the superior passer, having completed 24-of-40 attempts for 244 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame.

And Robinson is rugged, as he carried 28 times with no negative-yardage plays while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.

"We hit him hard," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Robinson, whose 87-yard scoring run was the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history. "He is a tough kid."

Rodriguez, meanwhile, isn't exhaling after the biggest win of his tumultuous tenure. He can't. This only was stop No. 2 on his "Save My Job" Tour. So far so good.

Michigan looks poised for a 5-0 start. The next two weeks feature patty-cake games with FCS member Massachusetts and Bowling Green coming to Ann Arbor. That's 4-0. Then comes a trip to defense-challenged Indiana. That's 5-0.

It all sets up a crucial three-game set from Oct. 9-30, with Michigan State and Iowa visiting followed by a trip to Penn State.

Rodriguez needs all the victories he can get. The man entered the season with three huge strikes.

1. He was 8-16 in two seasons and the program was bowl-less for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1972-74, when Michigan missed three years in a row during an era when the Big Ten sent only one team to the postseason.

2. Rodriguez is working for a new athletic director in David Brandon.

3. This proud, blue-blood football program is poised to go on probation for the first time.

Brandon has refused to assign a win number that Rodriguez has to hit to save his job. He speaks only of nebulous criteria like "showing progress" on and off the field.

"Forget all of this hot-seat nonsense," Brandon said earlier this season. "All I want to see is a team that's on the move and improving. And that's what Rich needs to see and that's what our fans need to see, and that is what we are looking for this season."

If Brandon won't spell out the secret formula, I will: Rodriguez needs to win at least eight games. And one of those eight victories has to be against either Michigan State or Ohio State, whom Rodriguez has yet to beat. But Rodriguez doesn't want to think about tomorrow right now.

"This is a great win for us in a tough environment, for a young team growing up," said Rodriguez, now 2-1 against the Irish. "It's fun. We'll enjoy it. We're proud of the guys, and we'll move on to the next one."

They'll move on with the most exciting player in college football leading the way for a coach who just may save his job.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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