Virginia Tech safety Eddie Whitley cracked a wry smile as he began detailing some of the challenges the Hokies’ defense will face next week when it has to corral Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the Sugar Bowl. When asked what his grin was for, Whitley said it seems just about every text message he receives these days says the same thing: “Denard, Denard, Denard.”
“It’s kind of like, you know how you play Little League football, the best athlete is at quarterback,” Whitley said. “There’s not going to be a play where he doesn’t touch the ball. It’s going to be hard on us.
Robinson remains the biggest obstacle for Virginia Tech’s defense as it attempts to rebound from a disappointing performance in the ACC championship game earlier this month. Though Robinson hasn’t been able to statistically match a 2010 campaign that saw him finish second in the country in total offense while running Rich Rodriguez’s spread attack, he is still the focal point in new offensive coordinator Al Borges’s adapted pro-style offense.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster equated Robinson’s skillset to former West Virginia quarterback Pat White, whom the Hokies defeated back in 2005. Robinson threw for more than 2,000 yards, finished second nationally among quarterbacks with 1,163 rushing yards and accounted for 34 touchdowns (18 passing, 16 rushing) this season.
“He’s probably the most athletic, dynamic athlete at that position in the country,” Foster said.
A closer look at the statistics, however, shows that Robinson can be slowed, and has been more often this year than last. In 2010, Robinson had nine games in which he accounted for more than 300 yards of total offense. This year he only accomplished that feat three times, and before Michigan’s season-ending win over Ohio State, Robinson hadn’t done it since an Oct. 8 win over Northwestern.
In fact, after September Robinson was held to less than 100 rushing yards in six of the Wolverines’ final eight games. In the passing game, Robinson’s completion percentage dropped from 62.5 percent to 56.1, and he threw a career-high 14 interceptions. But Michigan still enters the Sugar Bowl having upped its scoring average from 32.8 points per game in 2010 to 34.2 in 2011.
The reason for the improvement starts with Borges, whom the Hokies went up against in the 2005 Sugar Bowl when he coordinated an Auburn offense that featured Jason Campbell at quarterback and Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown in the backfield.
Upon arriving in Ann Arbor along with first-year coach Brady Hoke, Borges began implementing his pro-style offense with Robinson more frequently under center, instead of in the shotgun as he did on almost every snap in Rodriguez’s spread attack. But as the season wore on, Borges adapted his scheme more and more with aspects of the spread to take advantage of Robinson’s unique running ability.
The result was a hybrid offense that didn’t lean quite as heavily on Robinson, who has 48 fewer rushing attempts and 54 fewer passing attempts than a year ago. As Foster put it last week, “They’re playing to their strengths as a football team.”
“I think he’s catching on,” Borges recently told Annarbor.com in reference to Robinson. “He’s doing pretty much what every quarterback I’ve had in the first year has done. He started a little slow. Again, I said this before, is our passing game is so different from what they’ve done. There were going to be pains because there always is. He’s starting to absorb the concepts and be able to understand what we want, and it’s showing up at the end more than it did earlier.”
The momentum was tangible late in the season when Michigan scored 85 points combined in home wins over Nebraska and Ohio State that helped it close out the regular season with a 10-2 record. But the emergence of Michigan’s first bona fide featured tailback since Mike Hart also played a role.
After splitting carries with Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith in the early portions of this season, sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint grabbed hold of the starting job with a 170-yard, two-touchdown performance against Purdue at the end of the October. Toussaint ended the season by breaking the 100-yard mark in four of the Wolverines’ last five games and finished with 1,011 total rushing yards.
That seemed to spawn the formula for Michigan’s offensive success seemed down the stretch as it began to rely on its veteran offensive line, anchored by Rimington Award winner David Molk at center. The Wolverines went 4-1 in those final five games and their loss to Iowa on Nov. 5 was the only time when Robinson and Toussaint didn’t combine for 35 or more carries.
Foster called Robinson “basically another tailback in the backfield,” and hopes his front seven can force Michigan into passing situations, where Robinson has shown he is prone to making mistakes. But the Hokies also have to stay true to their assignments given Robinson’s ability to break contain and freelance on designed passing plays.
Combine all that with a cadre of small, speedy receivers like Martavious Odoms, who returned from a broken forearm to catch touchdowns in Michigan’s final three games of the season, and the Hokies defense will have their hands full, especially considering Clemson’s athletes exposed Virginia Tech on the perimeter in last month’s ACC championship game loss.
For Foster, though, it all begins with Robinson, no matter how much more well-rounded the Wolverines offense may be this season.
“He’s just a dynamic player. He can create plays. If you don’t pressure him in the passing game, he can buy time and create plays because he is a good enough thrower to make some plays,” Foster said. “But I still think our success has to come from us being able to stop the run and make him one dimensional. But doing that, that’s a hard job to do. Nobody has really had success doing that all year.”