ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Denard Robinson made his highly anticipated return to the field and wasn’t in a position to call plays for his first snap.
The spectacular quarterback lined up at running back behind Devin Gardner, who accounted for six touchdowns to help the 23rd-ranked Wolverines rout Iowa 42-17 Saturday.
“It was different,” Robinson acknowledged.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Robinson didn’t have a problem changing positions after missing two-plus games with nerve damage in his right elbow.
“I think it tells you about what kind of kid he is, what kind of young man he is, his growth, his character, his integrity,” Hoke said. “This kid had some unbelievable moments here and at Michigan Stadium and has had some moments that weren’t so good, but he’s grown from within.
“Devin said the other day, he has been the face of Michigan football.”
Gardner, though, has given the Wolverines (8-3, 6-1 Big Ten) a right arm and nimble feet to count on during a three-game winning streak.
He threw three TDs and ran for three scores, becoming the first Michigan quarterback to account for six TDs in a game since 1983, when Steve Smith had as many passing and rushing scores in a game at Minnesota.
“If Denard hadn’t gotten hurt, I would still be playing receiver and we would be winning games in a different fashion,” Gardner said. “I’m just thankful I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity.”
Another Wolverine, running back Thomas Rawls, is going to get a chance to play a lot against rival Ohio State next week because of an injury.
Fitzgerald Toussaint took an option pitch early in the game from Robinson and his left leg snapped gruesomely between his ankle and knee as he was tackled by two Hawkeyes. Toussaint was sent to a hospital for surgery.
“It was heartbreaking to see Fitz in so much pain,” Gardner said. “Fitz is a really tough guy and I’ve never seen his face grimacing like that.”
The Wolverines didn’t need Toussaint to beat Iowa, but it will be more difficult for them beat the Buckeyes for a second straight year without him next week.
The hapless Hawkeyes (4-7, 2-5) allowed Michigan to score on its first six possessions and couldn’t stop the Wolverines until Gardner threw an interception early in the fourth quarter.
“Defensively, we didn’t have any answers for anything they did,” coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa was officially eliminated from postseason contention by losing its fifth straight game for the first time since 2000.
The Hawkeyes will need to upset Nebraska next week to avoid their longest losing skid since dropping the last eight games of the 1999 season, which was Ferentz’s first season as head coach.
“We’re getting what we deserve,” receiver Keenan Davis said. “We’re not playing well enough to win games.”
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has publicly supported Ferentz, who under contract through the 2020 season.
Michigan, meanwhile, has a shot to have a second straight double-digit win season in Hoke’s second season in charge of college football’s winningest program. Hoke is the first coach to avoid losing a home game in his first two years with the Wolverines since Fielding Yost in the early 1900s.
“Seniors got to go in the tunnel and sing ‘The Victors’ for the last time in this stadium,” Hoke said. “We put a lot of emphasis on that because of the struggles and what they go through when you look at a guy who has been here for or five years.”
The Wolverines lost five home games when their fifth-year seniors were freshman in 2008 during Rich Rodriguez’s debut season and fourth-year players experienced three setbacks in Ann Arbor in their first year.
“Guys stuck it and really became Michigan Men,” fifth-year senior receiver Roy Roundtree said. “I feel like coach Hoke really emphasized don’t let no one come to your house and take over.”
Hoke also has stressed the importance of winning Big Ten titles and says anything short of that goal is failing.
To earn a spot in the Big Ten title game to have a chance to end an eight-year drought without a conference championship, Michigan has to win at Ohio State for the first time since 2000 and has to hope the Hawkeyes can stun the Cornhuskers next week at home
The Wolverines, though, have found a QB to help them close out this season and to generate high hopes for next year.
But right now, Michigan and its fans have only one game in mind.
Early in the fourth quarter, the crowd at the Big House started to chant: “Beat O-HI-O! Beat O-HI-O!”
Like Hoke, maize-and-blue clad fans don’t say “State,” when referring to the rival Buckeyes.
Hoke didn’t like what he heard.
“I said to somebody next to me, ‘We need to beat Iowa,’” he recalled.
That didn’t prove to be difficult.
The Wolverines did what they wanted through the air and on the ground against the Hawkeyes, who were shut down offensively after kicking a field goal to make it 14-10 early in the second quarter.
Gardner was 18 of 23 for 314 yards with TD passes to Roy Roundtree, Vincent Smith and Devin Funchess. Gardner ran for 37 yards, scoring on three short runs to lead a barrage of points that finally ended late in the third quarter.
Robinson ran 13 times for 98 yards, including a 40-yard sprint that included quite a juke along the sideline in the senior’s last home game. He took some snaps, but didn’t throw a pass.
“I just wanted to get on the field and do whatever I could to help our team,” Robinson said. “That’s how I’ve been my whole career.”