LINCOLN — Dreadlocks and untied shoelaces bounced in the open field of the Big House.
On third-and-6 in a 10-10 game, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson swept around the right end and found his old Florida high school foe, Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, waiting for him.
Robinson jump-hopped past him, kicked his speed into gear and dove four yards for a first down. He scored the go-ahead touchdown on the same drive. The Wolverines rolled 45-17 and Robinson had a field day with 263 total yards and four total touchdowns.
Object lesson: If a Husker who's starting in the NFL as a rookie couldn't tackle Robinson in a phone booth, it's best to bring friends. “You can't tackle him with just one guy,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “I haven't seen it the last three years, and I haven't seen it on tape yet this year. You have to gang-tackle this guy.”
Kaczenski knows better than most. He faced Robinson three times while coaching the defensive line at Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Michigan in those three games, too, neutralizing Robinson's ability to get in gridiron adventures and generally cause havoc.
How? By simple, brute means. Iowa knocked him out of the game in 2010 and sent him to the sidelines briefly in 2011.
“We came on a zero blitz and banged him up,” Kaczenski said of the 2011 game that Iowa won 24-16. “He wouldn't be able to do some of the things he did against other teams.”
The Huskers sacked Robinson once and intercepted him once, but the Wolverines held the ball for more than 41 minutes of game clock because Robinson repeatedly won third down. On that down, Michigan gained 134 yards, scored three touchdowns and drew a pass interference penalty. Robinson completed passes of 26, 38 and 46 yards on third down.
Nickel corner Ciante Evans said Robinson believes in his top receivers — Jeremy Gallon, Devin Gardner and Roy Roundtree — and will take shots downfield accordingly. Robinson's completing only a little more than 50 percent of his passes, but each completion is worth an average of 15 yards. And so far this year, the Wolverines have converted a Big Ten-best 49.47 percent of their third downs into first downs.
“That's just something we'll have to think about: Get off the field on third down,” Evans said. “We didn't play good last year. That's going to be something in our heads when we take the field for practices this week. Try to get better. Try to get off the field on third down.”
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Said safety P.J. Smith: “Big plays. Big plays are what killed us. They had their running game here and there, and they were able to throw the ball deep. It's going to come down to just finishing.”
The 6-foot, 197-pound Robinson will take his chances at running, too. After Alabama shut him down in a 41-14 Michigan loss, he's gained 90 or more yards in the past six games. He's eclipsed 200 yards twice. He's fourth in the Big Ten with 900 yards rushing.
Robinson gained just 83 yards versus the Huskers — who tailored their defensive plan around limiting the quarterback's running game — but on that key third-down play, he broke loose.
“He's good,” Evans said. “He's very dynamic. Kinda like playing (Ohio State quarterback) Braxton Miller all over again.”
After shutting down Miller for a quarter, Nebraska's run defense collapsed, failing to get off blocks, tackle Miller or both. But the Huskers had considerably more success against Northwestern athlete Kain Colter, who gained just 35 yards on 14 carries.
Both offenses run more zone read plays, coach Bo Pelini said, than Michigan, which incorporates a traditional I-formation and some timing routes into its offense. The Wolverines straddle the spread/pro-style fence for a few more games before coordinator Al Borges — who co-wrote a book titled “Coaching the West Coast Quarterback” — makes the full switch to a traditional drop-back pass/power run attack when Robinson graduates.
For now, Borges tries to free Robinson with sprint-out run/pass options, counter sweeps, Wildcat-style draws and a middle-zone read play similar to the one Nebraska designs for Taylor Martinez.
Pelini sees one key to slowing Robinson down.
“Be disciplined in your gaps,” he said. Keep the interlocking chain intact.
Smith cut more to the chase.
“Just tackle him,” he said. “No matter how, ankle tackle, big tackle, big hit, it doesn't matter. Just get him to the ground. He can run us over, but as long as we get him to the ground, that's all that matters.”
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