ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-turf-pellets kind of day, Michigan needed senior quarterback Denard Robinson to do more than flash his fabulous footwork.
So the senior, who like all his teammates had never beaten the hour-up-the-road rival Michigan State, showed Saturday he can throw the ball a little bit, too.
Third-down completions of 22 and 15 yards set up the Wolverines’ first field goal.
A 45-yard toss set up the second.
Hook ups of 15 and 13 yards led to a third 3-pointer.
Then inside the final 20 seconds with the clock running, no timeouts left and Michigan down a point, Robinson patiently waited for wideout Drew Dileo to break free and zipped a 21-yard bullet to him at the Michigan State 21.
Robinson lined up his team, spiked the ball to kill the clock, then went to the sidelines to watch Brendan Gibbons kick a 38-yard field goal with 5 seconds left for a 12-10 win that ended MSU’s four-game win streak in the series.
Truth be told, Robinson didn’t actually watch the kick.
“I took a knee and prayed,” he said.
Everyone had to wait through a timeout called to ice the kicker, which the shaggy-haired and heavily-bearded Gibbons shook off with his “whatever dude” attitude.
“It really doesn’t affect me,” the Floridian sniffed. “I think it’s kind of pointless.”
Before the kick, Gibbons assured receiver Roy Roundtree that he would make the kick so the seniors could finally regain possession of the Paul Bunyan Trophy — a prize none of them had ever seen.
“So I told everyone not to rush the field,” Roundtree said, who then admitted with a sheepish grin, “I was the main one out there.”
Hey, some celebration was in order in a Big Ten football season filled with little to cheer about.
Michigan’s comeback — its first win without a touchdown since beating Purdue 5-0 in 1995 — and Nebraska’s rally to nip Northwestern 29-28 adds a little shine to this week’s Wolverine (5-2, 3-0) vs. Husker (5-2, 2-1) matchup, which might decide the Legends Division title.
Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) nearly inserted itself into the race with another dazzling defensive effort against Robinson.
The nation’s fourth-leading rusher was at his MSU career average of just 2.8 yards a carry on Saturday before finally breaking a 44-yard scramble with five minutes to play. But that dash, which helped him finish with 96 yards on 20 carries, didn’t lead to any points.
It was his passing — all dropbacks, no rollouts — that did it. Few outside the team would have believed after Robinson threw interceptions on four consecutive passes in a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame a month ago.
Robinson, who apologized to his teammates for his poor decision-making that night, didn’t get specific Saturday night about his growth as a passer.
“We just talked all week about finishing,” he said. “We wanted to finish the game, and that’s what we did.”
But Roundtree practically bubbled about the improvement Robinson has shown recently under offensive coordinator Al Borges.
“Denard is getting way better at it,” Roundtree said. “He is being patient, trusting his blockers and really reading the defense. Coach Borges has made him learn from his mistakes, and I think he has done a good job with that.”
The passing numbers Saturday won’t make Michigan fans forget former Wolverine and current New England Patriot Tom Brady — 14 of 29 completions for 163 yards.
But the keys for Robinson were completions under duress on third down; no sacks taken; and just one interception, which came when he threw a ball up for grabs on the final play of the first half.
The passes became necessary because Michigan State jammed him up running, like it has the past three seasons.
“They’ve done that to a lot of good players,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
So what is MSU’s secret?
“They’ve got good players,” Hoke said. “They are extremely aggressive. The things they like to do are high-risk, high-reward, and it works for them. And they tackle well.”
Not exactly a model Nebraska can copy in a week’s time. Nor can NU trade for Michigan State’s Denicos Allen, an All-Big Ten linebacker candidate who had a game-high 11 tackles acting as the “spy” on Robinson.
So let the chess match begin. Nebraska just has to remember that Robinson has learned a few new moves.
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