December 20, 2012

Borton's Blog: Familiar dilemma

It's weeks later, but the sting of the Ohio State loss remains for Michigan fans. More importantly, some of the lingering questions from that game also carry right on through to Jan. 1.

Most of them center on senior Denard Robinson's right arm. How healthy is it? How functional will it be come Jan. 1? What role does he play, and how will he be used in tandem with junior quarterback Devin Gardner?

When it comes right down to it, any chance Michigan has of beating South Carolina in the Outback Bowl rides on Robinson experiencing one more big game in a winged helmet. Without a special effort from him, the Wolverines don't have the firepower to beat Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks.

Observers can argue strategy on this forever. If a defense knows Robinson isn't going to throw the ball, any appearance by him behind center sends off sirens, which even the Buckeyes eventually heard. If he's in a running back/slot receiver role, he requires enough creative use that works around his blocking inabilities, makes him an automatic threat to South Carolina's pass rush via screens, and gets him in space in ways that make Spurrier's secondary shudder.

Those thoughts arise in part because of quotes in a recent issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin, which covers Ohio State athletics. While offering nary a negative peep about disgraced former coach and prevaricator-in-chief Jim Tressel getting thunderously applauded inside Ohio Stadium on the day of the Michigan game, it did offer more from the Buckeyes on the game itself.

The aspects involving Robinson were particularly eye-catching.

"The tough thing is you didn't know exactly what his capacity was," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "Is he a quarterback? Can he throw it? Last week was the first time we saw him in a game, so it caused us to have a lot of late nights.

"You're trying to anticipate what you'll get, what he can and can't do. They brought back a lot of things they did earlier in the year and even last year. They had two packages."

Neither package used Robinson to throw the football. Once the Buckeyes figured that out, their defensive focus narrowed quite effectively in a shutout second half.

"I think getting an extra guy in the box helped," safety C.J. Barnett said. "We didn't know if Denard could throw or not coming in with his injury. I thought in the second half we came out and we were playing two games, one against Gardner, one against Denard.

"When Gardner was in, you had to watch out for the pass. When Robinson was in, because of his injury, he really couldn't throw so we expected that run coming."

Not only did the Buckeyes ultimately figure out U-M was in a half-attack with Robinson behind center, they also knew what set they desired to see.

"We knew they couldn't run at us out of the I-formation," safety Christian Bryant said. "[Defensive line coach Mike] Vrabel was telling us, 'Make them line up in the I-formation and try to run the ball against us,' because everyone on defense knew they couldn't do it."

Linebacker Ryan Shazier insisted he was particularly pleased to see the look.

"The thing a lot of people, I think, didn't figure out is that we really like going against pro-set teams," he said. "Anyone who ran a pro set, we were really good at stopping the run."

Aside from Robinson, Michigan hasn't proven very adept at not getting stopped in the run game. South Carolina has no doubt noticed.

The Gamecocks will be playing the same guessing game in the days leading up to Jan. 1. How will the intervening weeks allow Robinson to perhaps play a more expanded role?

It might not take them long to figure it out on game day, though. And the answer to that question should provide the answer to most others about Michigan's mood on New Year's Day.

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