When you start tailgating at noon for a 6pm game, you know what you're getting yourself into.
On Saturday twenty fellow Michigan fans and I gathered in Evanston for a pre-game tailgate on Lake Michigan. It was glorious. The sandy beach. The open space to throw the football. Meats grilling on the Webber. Cold, cold beer in the cooler. Good conversation, good friends, and a beautiful day allowed time to simply glide by. In some way, the game itself became ancillary to the good time that was being had. Even everyone there had arrived with tickets and the intention of going to the game, for a while at least, it seemed like the game really didn't matter that much. Such is the power of a good tailgate. It frees you from your nervous anticipation. Dispels your game time jitters. And it replaces them with a belly full of meat, cheese and beer, and fills you ears with the sounds of good friends.
Still. When you fill yourself with meat, cheese and beer, there's always a price to pay later. Whether its a handful of Tums to quell the roiling caldron of your stomach or a mid-game hangover at 8pm, you live and die with the noon tailgate. But you'd do it again in a heartbeat. The same can be said about Denard Robinson. You live a little, die a little with every play. And despite the heartburn a lot of Denard can cause, you still can't stop needing more.
With about two minutes left in the first half I, and most of the seemingly 30,000 Michigan fans who had turned Northwestern's Ryan Field into a Michigan home game, were nervous. Michigan was down 21-14 and was beginning to remind everyone present that the team really wasn't that far removed from 2010. But, after surrendering a touchdown to the Cats' with two minutes and change on the clock, Michigan's offense trotted onto the field. I turned to a friend and muttered that I had a bad feeling about this drive.
My friend turned to me a said "Yeah, but with Denard Robinson anything can happen," or something to that effect. He meant it in the best possible way and I took it as such. You see, my friend hasn't watched as much Michigan football as I have, nor has he been a keen observer of Michigan's electrifying signal caller, but he was right. Anything can happen. A minute later Denard tossed his third interception of the half to a wide open Northwestern safety and I turned to my friend with a wry smile and simply said "Anything." We both laughed, but the point remained. As a Michigan fan in 2011, you live and die by Denard's appendages.
Now, if we're being honest, Denard's first half was not good. Aside from an opening game drive to put Michigan up a touchdown, he was off. Something wasn't quite right early on. It's a tough thing to say as a Michigan fan because Denard's personality and athletic ability seem to have afforded him a near infallible status in certain corners of the Michigan fanbase. I can't tell whether it's a blind allegiance similar to Packers' fans who left the fold when Brett Favre went AWOL, or whether it's some kind of concern that the kid can't take criticism so every mistake must be placed on the shoulders of someone else. I don't know. Personally, I think the kid can take it. I think he knows the weight of the mantel he carries, and the grace he does it with throws some of us off. Regardless of which, his first half sucked.
Denard tossed three interceptions inside the Northwestern twenty. Two horrific overthrows that sailed yards above their intended, wide-open targets, and one throw into a sea of black and purple jerseys that no one I've talked with seems to be able to understand. Put simply, he was responsible for all three of the redzone interceptions that were tossed. Ironically, just before Denard's first pick, he completely an NFL level throw into a tiny window of space that led my wife to exclaim "Oh! So we've got that Denard today!" I chuckled. I married so well. Then he sailed a ball six feet over a wide open Junior Hemingway right into the waiting arms of the back side safety. Sigh....
That's how it is with Denard at this stage in his development. Minnesota game not withstanding, he can be maddeningly erratic. But the reason we love this kid, or at least the reason I do, is that he has the ability to correct his mistakes, to learn from them, and become an entirely different, mature, accurate quarterback in the span of a 20 minute break. One minute you're dying, the next he's pumping energy into you like he's a set of heart attack paddles linked up to a nuclear accelerator. It's just how he is.
And Saturday that's how he had to be. Despite being shredded on the ground by Army, Northwestern had stymied Illinois potent running attack. On Saturday the Wildcats showed that it wasn't a fluke by limiting Michigan to just 179 yards on the ground and holding Michigan's non-Denard rushers to 62 yards on 25 carries. Denard was forced to carry the bulk of the load, going for 117 on 25 carries. That's not ideal, but you knew that already.
Despite the issues on the ground, Michigan (like Illinois) was able to move the ball through the air the entire game. And as Denard settled down, Michigan air attack became it's primary source of offense. Denard finished the day with 337 passing yards and two first half TDs to go along with three first half picks. While the fantasy numbers that hit you were in the first half, the NFL quarterback demonstration took place in the second half.
I couldn't believe that it was the same quarterback at times. Denard found holes in the secondary that shouldn't have existed. On a fourth quarter pass to Junior Hemingway he put just enough air under the ball to escape the arms of a zone sitting corner, but just enough velocity on it to get it to Hemingway before the safety came over the top to bat it away. He just started to click. The outs to Jeremy Gallon were where they were supposed to be. The balls were placed where only his player could get to it. Even the throws over the middle were in the tiny box of space the had to be to escape the defenders' out stretched hands. He truly is a special player, and perhaps that is why the slow starts are so puzzling and frustrating.
But the difference between this season and last season is stark not just because of Denard, but because of the defense. While this is not yet a true Michigan level defense, it's getting there. The front seven started slow in the first half, surrendering tons of yards and 24 points before the half ended. But the second half was a different story. Michigan surrendered just 90 yards on four second half drives before Northwestern's meaningless final drive tacked on 79 more yards to that tally. More importantly, Michigan didn't just prevent Northwestern from scoring, but they turned the Cats' over on half of their possessions and forced a turnover on downs on another. Michigan finished the day with 4 sacks and a lot of confidence based on their stifling of a very good Northwestern offense.
Still, the story always comes back to Denard. As he continues to grow in this offense and as a quarterback you have to believe the sky is the limit. And the problem can be, as a fan, you expect that he'll always be at that upper strata because you've already seen him there on occasion. But he's still a kid. He's still growing. And because of that we'll continue to ride the roller coaster that is "Denard Robinson, Michigan Quarterback". Sometimes you'll die a little, like in the first half of Saturday's game.
The rest of the time you'll live like a king.