Analysis: Blueprint for stopping Michigan's Denard Robinson is clear
ARLINGTON, Texas -- They brought extra defenders into the box, daring Denard Robinson to beat them with his arm. They battered the quarterback when he did run. And they shut him down doing it.
They were Virginia Tech.
They were Michigan State.
They were even Illinois.
And on Saturday, they were Alabama.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide stymied Robinson in Saturday's 41-14 bludgeoning of the Wolverines, although Michigan handcuffed itself a bit by getting away from Robinson in the running game. Robinson is culpable, too, for often giving away the ball on reads when he should have kept it.
Robinson holds the NCAA record for rushing yards in a season by the quarterback. And yet, he didn't get his third carry against Alabama until the third quarter, his team trailing 31-7.
He finished 11-of-26 passing for 200 yards (most of which came on two passes), one touchdown and two interceptions. He rushed 10 times for 27 yards.
Alabama turning Robinson into a pocket passer with its pressure is one of the top storylines to emerge from Michigan's embarrassing season-opening loss. But the Crimson Tide aren't exactly the first team to stop Robinson this way.
They simply followed the script already penned by Michigan State, Virginia Tech and Illinois last year. And Robinson struggled against that game plan each time.
The Spartans seem to have written the book on how to stop Robinson. The past two years, MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has dialed up an array of daring blitz packages that have put extra men in the box.
Those defenses stall the running game, but leave open lanes down the field. The trick, of course, is the quarterback has to see them.
Robinson has not.
He completed 26-of-53 passes (49.1 percent) with two touchdowns and four picks in his two starts against Michigan State. He averaged 64 yards rushing and 3.3 yards per carry in those games.
Other teams have adopted similar strategies, and achieved similar results. Not every defense has the personnel, but the best ones -- such as an Alabama -- consistently beat Robinson with this formula.
Of course, Alabama got so much push from its defensive line, it often didn't even need the blitzes to achieve the same effect.
A look at Robinson's numbers last year against those three teams:
Michigan State: 9-of-24 passing for 123 yards, 1 TD, 1 pick; 18 rushes for 42 yards (2.3 average), 1 TD
Illinois: 6-of-10 passing for 92 yards, 0 TDs, 1 pick; 12 carries for 30 yards (2.5 average), 2 TDs
Virginia Tech: 9-of-21 passing for 117 yards, 2 TDs, 1 pick; 13 carries for 13 yards (1.0 average), 0 TDs
Those three took away Robinson's running game, holding him to 2.0 yards per carry and 28 yards per game. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 109.2 yards per game against everyone else.
The counterattack to those risky schemes is to pass over the top. But Robinson hasn't shown he can do even that, completing 43.6 percent of his passes in those games last year, and 58.1 percent against everyone else. He averaged 110.7 yards passing in those games, and 184.1 against everyone else.
There are two takeaways from those splits: Robinson scorches teams he should scorch, and puts up gaudy overall numbers because of it, but he continues to have consistent struggles against the best defenses.
And that's disconcerting, because Michigan still must face some excellent defenses this year. That includes Michigan State, which returns a wealth of experience from a unit that ranked No. 6 nationally last year and forced Robinson into one of his worst career games.
That means they have experience doing to Robinson what Alabama just did.
And if Robinson doesn't find a way to make teams respect the passing game, thereby alleviating pressure in the box, he'll continue to find similar results.
Some other thoughts from Saturday's walloping against Alabama:
Jeremy Gallon comes up large again: Junior Hemingway (leading receiver) and Roy Roundtree (disappointing receiver) received most of the attention last year, while Gallon quietly put together a breakout year of 31 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns. Michigan, of course, wouldn't have beaten Notre Dame without his 64-yarder to set up the game-winner. Against Alabama, he had a 71-yarder and finished with a game-high 107 yards receiving. While every other player labored, Gallon again came up big. Coaches hype Roundtree, but it's time to call it: Gallon is Michigan's best receiver.
Will Hagerup shines: With one swing of that big leg, the junior punter seemed to put his troubling sophomore season behind him. He boomed his first attempt 62 yards -- 12 more than his long of all last season -- and never wavered. Hagerup finished with six punts that averaged 51.3 yards apiece. His long all last year was 50 yards. Hagerup had four kicks of at least that distance against Alabama and seems, for now, to have rediscovered his freshman form.
Going young: Hoke recently told BTN he might play as many as 12 true freshmen this year, which seemed excessive considering his team's key returning starters. Yet, it took him only one game to play 10 freshmen, two more than all last year: LB James Ross III, FB Sione Houma, S Jarrod Wilson, DL Mario Ojemudia, LB Royce Jenkins-Stone, DL Ondre Pipkins, RB/KR Dennis Norfleet, LB Joe Bolden, LB Terry Richardson and TE A.J. Williams.
Freshmen to watch: Norfleet was dynamic on kick returns in his first college game, averaging 22.1 yards per attempt (Michigan averaged 18.4 yards last year). And, that doesn't reflect a 40-yarder that was called back due to a penalty. That would have been longer than any return all last year. Expect to see lots of him this year. On defense, Ross appeared to make a few mistakes, but held up well and could become a regular player at linebacker.
Freshmen who could still see the field: The best bets seem to be TE Devin Funchess, OL Kyle Kalis, WR Amara Darboh and WR Jehu Chesson. They each play positions of need (tight end Brandon Moore and offensive lineman Taylor Lewan each suffered injuries) and made the travel squad, which indicates they're on the cusp.
Missing Fitz Toussaint: Michigan couldn't get much going without its suspended tailback, with Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls combining for 42 yards on 19 carries. That's 2.2 yards per carry, and that's not enough for a run-oriented team with a quarterback who is challenged by the passing game. It's difficult to say how much better the running game would have been with Toussaint, considering Michigan's offensive line consistently lost the battles up front, but the Wolverines certainly would have been better served with his experience in the backfield. It also would have taken pressure of Robinson.
Positions of greatest concern: The offensive line is scuffling, after being demoralized by Alabama's defensive front. Michigan also executed a late switch, moving left guard Elliott Mealer to center and center Ricky Barnum to left guard. A position change like that, so close to the opener, shows this group has not come along as expected. Now, star left tackle Taylor Lewan also is dealing with a right leg injury. Another position to watch is tight end, after starter Brandon Moore left the opener with an injury. Behind him is just senior Mike Kwiatkowski, who was a walk-on until last week, and true freshmen Williams and Funchess.