The Iowa Hawkeyes' defense and defensive coordinator Norm Parker had a clear game plan against Michigan. They dared Denard Robinson to beat them throwing the football. And once again, Robinson and the Wolverines' offense showed they just can't win games that way, taking a tough 24-16 loss in Iowa City.
Michigan's quarterback has gone from the most electrifying player to watch in the country to perhaps the most frustrating.
What makes Robinson so frustrating to watch — for fans, but surely teammates and coaches, as well — is that he appears to be making the right decisions in throwing the football.
Yes, sometimes he throws the ball to a receiver surrounded by defenders or makes it obvious where he's going to throw by locking in on his target. But Robinson often seems to make the correct read and find the open receiver. The only problem is, he frequently doesn't execute the actual throw properly.
The ball is thrown 15 yards ahead of the receiver streaking downfield. Or it's not thrown far enough, forcing the receiver to make an adjustment and come back to the ball. (In doing so, Michigan receivers often make Robinson look better by catching what was a poor throw.)
On shorter passes, Robinson often throws behind the receiver, forcing him to slow down or reach back. Sometimes, the ball is thrown too high, requiring receivers to reach up high and jump for the catch, exposing their torsos to wicked hits from charging linebackers and defensive backs.
Poor throwing mechanics look to be part of the problem for Robinson. Maybe he gets too excitable when needing to make a play and then rushes or puts too much into a throw. (This isn't much of a problem when Robinson is running around the tackles on an option play. Excitability probably makes his legs go faster.) Maybe he is trying just a little too hard out there and needs to dial it down a bit.
The biggest concern is that Robinson isn't getting any better in the passing game from week to week. There have been occasions — such as the Minnesota game — when it looked like Robinson was making progress. But that was due largely to a concerted effort by offensive coordinator Al Borges to give Robinson shorter passes to boost his completion percentage and build his confidence. But let's be honest — the Golden Gophers' defense didn't exactly get in Robinson's face and force him into poor throws.
On Saturday, Iowa played it rather safe against Robinson. The Hawkeyes didn't send a flurry of pass rushers against him, like Michigan State did, mowing down Robinson before he could throw or run. But the defensive line generated a good pass rush, while the linebackers covered each gap, making sure Robinson had nowhere to run.
(Helping Iowa's defensive philosophy was Robinson's tendency not to run on a pass play. Even if he has a bunch of room to run in front of him, Robinson keeps his eyes downfield on his receivers and seemingly forgets that he's allowed to run if no one is open.
It's a good thing that Robinson doesn't just take off at the first sign of trouble and tries to let a play develop. But he also has a weapon that few other quarterbacks have, one that give defenses nightmares. His unwillingness to use it when the opportunity presents itself is — have I used this word yet? — frustrating.)
Robinson had plenty of time to throw on several pass plays versus Iowa, especially when Borges called for a rollout. Yet Robinson just can't complete a deep throw with any sort of accuracy. The best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) example of this was late in the fourth quarter when Roy Roundtree fought through a jam at the line of scrimmage and knocked down the defensive back. Roundtree then ran a post down the field and was wide open for a touchdown.
But Robinson sailed his pass and overthrew Roundtree. As a Michigan fan, have you ever missed the likes of Chad Henne, John Navarre or Tom Brady more? Heck, even Steven Threet probably would've hit that deep ball.
Yet as aggravating as Robinson is to watch, he still somehow gets Michigan in a position to win a ballgame. The Wolverines had their chances to tie this one up.
Some (many?) will argue that Robinson did indeed draw Michigan to within two points when Junior Hemingway stretched out for a one-handed grab to haul in a three-yard pass for what looked like a touchdown. Hemingway's knee came down in bounds and he appeared to have possession of the ball. But the call on the field was an incomplete pass and there was no definitive angle to determine whether Hemingway caught or dropped the ball. So the call wasn't overturned.
(Here's the video. You can judge for yourself.)
Michigan still had two chances to score a touchdown. Calling a running play for Robinson was out of the question since the Wolverines inexplicably burned their last timeout earlier in the fourth quarter. But Robinson's inability at this point to throw the ball accurately handcuffed the offense. He can't throw the fade pass with any sort of touch. Any sort of crossing pattern or quick slant that requires a strong throw wasn't an option. So what was left? Depending on one of Michigan's receivers to make an amazing play or a defensive breakdown by Iowa was really the only hope.
Of course, that didn't happen, and Michigan took a tough loss that will very likely cost them a chance at winning the Big Ten Legends Division.
To drag out an overused phrase, Robinson is what he is at this point. And really, so is the Michigan offense. Eight games into the season, can Robinson really iron out the wrinkles in his game? Or is it more on Borges and the Michigan offensive coaching staff to "Let Denard Be Denard," run more spread option and basically junk the myriad other plays and formations that are supposed to give the offense balance?
Unfortunately, not much is likely to change in the next three games. (Would playing Devin Gardner more really be an answer?) And that schedule isn't getting any easier. Hopefully, Michigan fans have hair left to pull and teeth left to grind as they watch the square peg keep trying to fit in the round hole.