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ANN ARBOR — When Michigan’s coaching staff arrived on campus this winter and began laying out their expectations for certain players, they never discussed — not publicly, anyway — the what ifs.
For example, what if the offense can’t score, let alone move the ball, against an opponent that it figured to overpower? Do the coaches then decide to remove the proverbial harness attached to quarterback Denard Robinson and let him do what he does best? The answer, Saturday, was yes. And no, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Vowing in the offseason that they wouldn’t overindulge on Robinson rushes, coach Brady Hoke and his staff had to scrap that plan in a 31-3 win over Eastern Michigan at Michigan Stadium.
Robinson piled up 198 yards on 26 attempts, the result of his coaches readjusting their plan of not wanting to run him more than 15 times a game. Robinson’s slice of the pie got bigger and bigger after the Wolverines failed to score in the first quarter for the third week in a row.
“We don’t want to get him beat up,” Hoke said after the game. “We’re going to play in a pretty physical league, so we have to make sure we get other ways [of moving the ball].”
It was partially Robinson’s fault he had to run so much. Continuing a disturbing trend from the past two weeks, accuracy was an issue early on for the junior, who misfired on his first five passing attempts. Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, Robinson got busy with his feet, busting a 52-yard run on a play that began at his own 3-yard line. After three more runs by him, including one for 22 yards, Robinson found Kevin Koger for his first completion of the afternoon. They hooked up a few plays later, on Robinson’s only other completion of the half, for a 9-yard touchdown strike to finalize a 97-yard drive.
“We came out a little bit flat, but in the 97-yard drive we picked up some momentum,” Robinson said.
From that point forward, Robinson settled in, and the Wolverines (3-0) did what was expected of them against an EMU team trying to avoid its 16th straight losing season. Robinson began handing the ball off to Vincent Smith, who picked up 118 yards on just nine carries (13.1 average) to record his first 100-yard game since his freshman season in 2009.
Robinson’s runs remained a part of the revised game plan, noted by his 11-yard TD run with 39 seconds left in the first half. At that point, he had 14 carries for 131 yards.
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“When you have a guy who can make multiple plays because of his athleticism, there’s no doubt that it’s a little more difficult,” Hoke said. “He’s done a nice job. We just have to keep working, and he has to keep working on it and focusing and concentrating on that improvement on his game.”
While the offense sputtered early, the defense managed to keep the dam in tact. Safety Jordan Kovacs flew overtop the line of scrimmage to stop EMU running back Javonti Greene on fourth-and-goal at the 1, wrapping Greene’s ankles for a textbook takedown. When the Wolverines failed to gain a yard on the ensuing drive, the Eagles took advantage by making a 21-yard field goal.
Kovacs, who has come up with big moments in all three games, was assigned to Greene on the play.
“He was locked on that guy and he did a tremendous job of beating the guy to the edge,” Hoke said.
Kovacs said EMU (2-1) ran various plays and formations in the first half the Wolverines didn’t anticipate. Foremost, was a double pass that ended badly for the Eagles. Lined up as a receiver, backup quarterback Tyler Benz caught a quick pass from Alex Gillett and threw a deep ball down the visitor’s sideline that Michigan safety Thomas Gordon intercepted with one arm as he tumbled to the turf.
“The backup quarterback was in and we kind of keyed that so we knew something tricky was up,” said Gordon, who also recovered a fumble in the first half. “The [receiver] released and I just ran with him and made a good play.”
Fitzgerald Toussaint scored his third short-yardage TD of the season with 9:17 left in the third quarter to put Michigan ahead 21-3.
The Wolverines next drive, which lasted 11 plays, culminated in slot receiver Drew Dileo firing off the line uncovered and hauling in his first career TD pass from Robinson.
Halftime adjustments contributed to the offense’s spark, Hoke said.
“The offensive staff came in at halftime and said, this is what we like, and this is how we ought to align it formationally, and this is how we probably need to tweak the blocking of it,” he said. “It went pretty well.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.