NEW ORLEANS -- This wasn’t how Michigan thought it would go. Throughout the lead-up to the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night, offensive coordinator Al Borges said he felt his team’s timing was still there, that his offense was improving.
Quarterback Denard Robinson, who had been up and down throughout the season, was coming off the best two-game stretch of his career leading up to the bowl (in wins over Nebraska and Ohio State) and seemed finally to find his stride.
Perhpas that confidence has waned a bit now. Yes, Michigan beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, 23-20, but its offense never quite showed up, held to 184 yards.
“They figured us out,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “They knew they had to stop Denard, had to stop (Fitzgerald Toussaint) and that’s what they did. Thank God our defense was here when we needed them the most.”
The Hokies succeeded in one thing Tuesday night: They completely shut down the Wolverines' running game. Virginia Tech held Robinson to 13 yards rushing -- his lowest total since he lost 3 yards on one carry against Purdue as a freshman in 2009 and his lowest rushing total in his two seasons as a starter.
Toussaint was held to 30 yards -- his lowest total since the Michigan State game this season, when he had 7 yards on two carries.
Some of the struggles, for sure, were aided by the right foot injury to senior center David Molk, who heard his foot pop in warmups and sat out the first drive but played the rest of the way.
But it went beyond that injury. Virginia Tech essentially drew up the blueprint going forward for how to stop Michigan. Load up on the run, especially on first down, to take away Toussaint and Robinson’s running ability, and force Robinson into long down-and-distance where he has to pass.
“They had a good plan,” Toussaint said. “They were pretty athletic, were good, and they were fast. I just felt that we had to just go out there and play a little harder.”
For the Hokies, it worked. Robinson reverted, in some ways, to his early season form -- missing receivers, making bad reads into coverage and being bailed out by Tuesday’s Most Outstanding Player, senior receiver Junior Hemingway, who had two catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
Both of Hemingway’s touchdowns were more outstanding plays by Hemingway than anything Robinson did. Robinson completed only 9 of 21 passes for 117 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and at least three other passes that could have been intercepted or were intercepted and then overturned on replay.
So that is a key point for Michigan to start working at for next season as even Borges admitted after the game that Lewan might have been right -- that it is possible the Hokies figured Michigan out.
“I don’t know that they did or they didn’t, but there were times it certainly looked like it,” Borges said. “We’re just trying to plug away and see what they are trying to over-defend and try to hit them with some counter-punches. Hopefully you can execute them.”
They did enough to win Tuesday, but heading into next season -- when Michigan will be one of the favorites in the Big Ten -- the Wolverines will have to be better than they were in the season finale of 2011.