November 17, 2012

Here and now trumps way we were

Denard Robinson returned for the magic of a football Saturday at The Big House just in time to remember how much he'll miss it. The last to leave the field, Robinson could have stayed until the janitors removed his unlaced shoes and swept him up the tunnel.

The senior quarterback had plenty of company. Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs wasn't in any hurry to wander out either. He lingered with Robinson, perhaps recalling stepping onto Michigan's FieldTurf an unknown walk-on and stepping off a captain and four-year starter.

Fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens doesn't linger often in Michigan Stadium. This time around, he had all the time in the world.

"I just felt myself kind of get emotional, looking at the fans and spinning around in a 360 motion," Demens said. "I was thinking, this is the last go-around. Normally, I'm like the first person to go up the tunnel … I just took it all in, to keep all those good memories."

But even as they reveled and reminisced, they knew. They understood better than anyone, this final soaking up of the adulation from 113,000 needed to be set aside almost as quickly as Robinson dismissing a trailing tackler.

"It was bittersweet," Kovacs admitted. "Obviously, it was a big win for us. That was exciting. For it to be the last time in The Big House, I'm not ready for it to end. It's been quite the journey, and I'm ready to ride it out. But it's not over yet. We've still got a couple more."

A couple more … or maybe three. The combination of a Michigan win at Ohio State and an Iowa victory at home against Nebraska next Friday puts the Wolverines in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

As farfetched as that scenario might seem -- after the Wolverines treated the Hawkeyes like a combine treats a cornrow in a 42-17 pummeling on Senior Day - college football has seen far stranger outcomes down through the years. An Iowa upset at Kinnick Stadium would propel the Wolverines into the Snakepit on rocket fuel the following day.

Even if it doesn't happen, U-M has plenty for which to play, and more ways than ever to get it done.

The two-year dream of some Michigan fans finally played out in The Big House against Iowa. It simultaneously ushered them into maize and blue Nirvana and elicited a torrent of "I told you so."

There was Robinson, moving at times to running back with his still-healing right arm, racing away for 98 yards on just 13 carries. There was strong-armed junior quarterback Devin Gardner, piling up touchdowns like a Case IH Steiger quad trac 600 piling up soil (believe me, all Iowans understand this).

Gardner rolled up six TDs, three on the ground, three through the air while carving up Iowa's often-disarrayed secondary in an 18-for-23, 314-yard performance. U-M's stand-in quarterback turned Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz into a stand-up observer that the talent in Ann Arbor is inexorably returning to form.

"Defensively, we just did not have any answers for their attack and that became apparent pretty quickly," Ferentz said. "Credit them, they did a great job and played an excellent game."

So much so, those pining for a fulltime Devin-Denard dream combo were wondering where it's been all these months. Michigan coach Brady Hoke admitted he's been thinking about it for months himself - around 18.

So why now, and why not before?

Hoke paused a long time prior to answering that one. He'll never be a shoot-from-the-hip crowd pleaser in press conferences, because he cares too much about those he's talking about - 115 sons, he calls them.

"I would say in doing it, it would have been done kind of like we did last year a little more, when we had both of them on the field, and we just added to it," Hoke said. "And there's a maturity level from everybody it takes to be able to handle those things."

Hoke and his crew would have been certifiably insane to arrive in Ann Arbor and not consider Robinson their quarterback, someone to be courted and kept in town. He'd just finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, thrown for 2,570 yards and rushed for 1,702 more. He'd completed 62.5 percent of his passes as a sophomore.

Sure, there would be competition. But intimating equal footing in that situation would have sounded disingenuous, if not demented.

That's when a backup can feel like a backup, and perhaps not compete and prepare like the starter. It's clear, now, that Gardner can help supply the air force to Robinson's infantry.

And neither is one-dimensional. Robinson didn't throw a single pass against Iowa … but Ohio State doesn't know if, and when, he will.

The Buckeyes just know they'll have their hands full, or perhaps empty, if the Gardner-Robinson combo gets it going.

And the Wolverines know, to a man, the Senior Day sentiment needs to disappear quicker than Frodo slipping on the ring. There's room for only one emotion this week, and that's well-channeled fury.

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