ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Old Michigan’s might inspired fear.
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive tackle would sit on your defensive end, while the 6-6, 230-pound quarterback would rifle a pass at the speed of light to a 6-3, 220-pound wide receiver. Or the quarterback would turn and hand the ball to a 6-foot, 230-pound running back would stomp on your defensive end that the offensive tackle was already sitting on.
Old Michigan was might. New Michigan is speed.
Quarterback Denard Robinson is showing the Big Ten just how scary speed can be.
“I don’t think it’s an intimidator. I think it’s something you have to know and that it can hurt you,” strong safety Tyler Sash said. “I don’t think you should be intimidated by it, but just know these guys can hurt you any play of the game with their speed.”
Cue the highlight reel.
Robinson, a 6-0, 193-pound sophomore, is No. 2 in the nation in rushing (165.2 yards a game) and total offense (369.0). Think it’s just all feet? He’s No. 12 in the nation in pass efficiency (164.1) even though he threw three interceptions in last week’s loss to Michigan State.
Against an Iowa defense that put two linebackers in the NFL last season, Robinson brought the Wolverines (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) back from dead with a fourth-quarter TD drive. In 13 plays against the Hawkeyes, Robinson accounted for 79 yards, including 49 on nine rushes with a 3-yard TD.
Robinson’s 40-yard dash is reportedly timed in the 4.3-second range. For legitimacy, check his times for Michigan’s indoor track team last winter. Robinson put up a team-best 6.81 in the 60 meters in a dual meet against Ohio State. That’s right on the edge of all-American.
Robinson turned down offers from several big-time programs that wanted him as the proverbial “athlete.” Florida wanted him as a quarterback. He fell in love with Michigan and the way coach Rich Rodriguez used quarterback Pat White when he was at West Virginia.
Robinson has fit in Rodriguez’s offense like a Lego.
“I’m in the right place at the right time,” Robinson said, “right coaches, right place and right teammates, God willing.”
Robinson has kinks in his overall quarterback play — see patience and accuracy — but he’s a runner at heart and that was more than enough during Michigan’s 5-0 start.
“I think when you have a running quarterback, you add a number in the run game, the first thing, and the second thing
is you put a little more pressure on them,” Rodruiguez said. “If you do rush him and he scrambles out, he can make a big play with his feet.”
This week in Iowa’s practice, Nick Kuchel is doing his best Denard Robinson on the scout team. He won a Drake Relays title in the 110-meter high hurdles as a sophomore at Kingsley-Pierson High School.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz joked this week that if they had a Denard Robinson he wouldn’t be on the scout team.
“A guy like Denard Robinson, you don’t want to be in a foot race with him,” outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen said.
Michigan State is being lauded this week for “containing” Robinson. The Spartans certainly deserve credit for the three interceptions — two of which came in their end zone — off Robinson, but the Deerfield, Fla., native still rolled up 301 yards of offense with a rush TD and a TD pass.
Michigan State and Iowa have differing concepts defensively, but the two teams are built to slug it out.
“You certainly have the basis of who we are and what we do and that has to transcend everything we’re doing,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said prior to last weekend’s matchup in Ann Arbor. “We can’t be somebody we’re not. Difficult to do.
“Robinson is a very special player. He’s going to have the ball in his hands the most important times of the game. He makes things work. What we have to do is defend him first and work from the inside out.”
Defend him first and work from the inside out.
This speaks to the concept of ”leverage.” That basically means “contain.” And that’s pretty much the basis of Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker’s scheme. Only Iowa’s idea is more of an “outside in.”
“Leverage starts with all 11 guys,” Sash said. “The corners force everything in. The linebackers force everything in. The linemen force everything in. And the safeties force everything in. You don’t want to let anyone outside of you.
“And then angles. You’re all spaced out evenly across the field. When you pursue, you want to keep them inside of you. You don’t want to let them outside because you don’t have any help on the outside. It’s all coming inside.”
If Robinson gets outside, Iowa might have an Indiana on its hands.
Robinson single-handedly destroyed the Hoosiers, piling up 494 yards total offense which is second only to the school-record 502 he put up this season against Notre Dame. Robinson threw for three TD passes and rushed 4 yards with 17 seconds left to win it for the Wolverines.
Robinson had a 72-yard TD run and pass plays of 74 and 70.
“We had the ball 41 minutes. Scored 35 points. You’d think that’d lead to a win,” Indiana coach Bill Lynch said. “It didn’t, because of the big plays they had.”
All other defensive principles apply here times 10. Of course, tackling and getting off blocks are important. Dantonio shaped the leverage concept with the term “pointing the football,” which brings leverage, angles and flow into the picture.
“All 11 guys have to pursue to the ball and keep everything inside the numbers,” cornerback Shaun Prater said, referring to the yard-line numbers painted on a field. “Anyone gets outside, there’s trouble. You’ve got to force them back inside and get the tackle.”
If Robinson does get outside and if you have any hope to stop him, you want to make him stop his feet.
“If you make him stop his feet, you’re going to give guys more time to come in and help out with the tackle,” Nielsen said. “You want him to stop his feet and make him think, so it’s not so natural out there.”
If Robinson gets outside, Iowa is an Indiana and another batch of Denard Robinson highlights on ESPN. If Iowa keeps him “between the numbers,” it has a chance to be a Michigan State and is on pace in the Big Ten.
It’s an either/or. Either you’re fast enough or you’re not.
You never know until speed is coming right at you. That’s the scariest part.