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Robinson raises questions for Irish

Chris Masoud | Monday, September 13, 2010

If winning a football game is a team effort, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson produced this season’s most convincing counterexample. The sophomore accounted for 502 of the Wolverines’ 532 yards of total offense, led his team 72 yards for the game-winning drive and muscled his way into the end zone from the 2-yard line for the game’s final score.

The verdict on Robinson is clear. Pundits are touting him as the season’s first legitimate Heisman contender. Yet for the Notre Dame defense, which limited Purdue to just 322 yards of total offense in the season opener, the answers are far less apparent.

“We obviously would have liked to have tackled better in that last drive,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We had some missed assignments that we had not had. So we obviously were fatigued, and it might have been just being on the field a little bit too long. That’s a great excuse. We didn’t give them that excuse in the locker room.”

Kelly’s game plan heading into Saturday’s contest was simple — limit Robinson’s impact on the game, but do not sacrifice coverage by sending too many extra blitzers to do it.

While the first half numbers hardly suggest a successful strategy at work — Robinson tallied 281 yards and two touchdowns through the game’s first 30 minutes — adjusting to a player of Robinson’s caliber isn’t exactly a straightforward process.

“It’s unfair to replicate [his ability] in practice, because it’s not possible,” junior defensive end Ethan Johnson said. “It’s more challenging with what he does than just somebody trying to imitate him.”

But for much of the second half, the Irish defense managed to bring pressure on the mobile quarterback without the use of the blitz. Despite zero sacks, solid penetration from the front three led to several rushed throws, and great containment kept Robinson from breaking loose.

“Our defense really kept us in the ball game, even while we were mucking it around on offense there,” Kelly said. “And other than the last drive, I thought our defense competed.”

Yet the Irish abandoned that strategy for the game’s final drive, instead opting for a defensive package designed to provide additional pressure on both Robinson and his receivers.

“Well we brought some edge pressures, and felt like the bubble slant combination zone is a tough play to defend when it happens so far out on the perimeter because the safety’s engaged,” Kelly said. “So we had to play a little bit more man-to-man to take away the passing game.”

Yet 3:41 is more than enough time for a college quarterback to march a team down the field, especially when he has a knack for breaking tackles. Robinson rushed for just 17 yards on the final drive, but exposed the Irish secondary for 55 yards through the air.

“Obviously if somebody has that many yards on you, that’s pretty embarrassing,” senior safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s up to the players to execute, and we just didn’t do that on every play. We gave up some big plays, and that’s how a team like that will beat you.”

While Irish fans are ready to question a defense that showed promise in its season opener, they can take heart in the fact that the stalwarts of the defense continued their strong play.

Sophomore inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese tallied 26 tackles, and the secondary prevented the Wolverines receivers from reaching the end zone in the second half.

“We did good,” Te’o said. “I don’t know if I can grade anything off a loss. A couple of plays we let go, but overall we did good. We’ll fight for four quarters. It doesn’t matter what the score is.”