SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Denard Robinson has left Notre Dame feeling helpless.
Two years ago, the Michigan quarterback known as Shoelace burst into the national spotlight with 502 yards of total offense and scored the game-winning TD with 27 seconds left against the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame did a better job last season, until the fourth quarter. The Wolverines scored 28 fourth-quarter points, including two touchdown passes in the final 72 seconds by Robinson. It was a memorable third straight last-minute victory by the Wolverines over the Irish.
So after seeing Robinson gut the Notre Dame defense for 944 yards total offense in two games, Irish coach Brian Kelly just wants to limit the damage inflicted by the guy he describes as “the best player on the field.”
“There’s no easy answer. I can’t tell you there’s one thing that we can do against Denard Robinson,” Kelly said. “You’re going to have to give up a couple of things. You have to minimize the big plays against a young man like this.”
Take away the 87-yard TD run Robinson had against the Irish in 2010 — the one where he took the snap in the shotgun, ran right between two Irish defenders and raced untouched for the longest TD run ever inNotre Dame Stadium — and perhaps the Irish win. Take away a 77-yard completion late to Junior Hemingway in the third quarter last season, with Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore wrapped around Robinson’s legs, starting the Michigan comeback, and perhaps the Irish win.
“Some people still give me a hard time about that play,” Lewis-Moore said. “But he’s really hard to bring down. He’s really shifty. You just have to keep him contained.”
Kelly compares playing Robinson to playing an option offense, saying the key is playing disciplined and making sure each player does his job.
“Because if you’re not in your proper fit, he’s going to go 70 yards,” Kelly said.
Kelly also doesn’t want to try to make the defense too complicated, saying keeping it simple allows the Irish to play fast.
“I didn’t want to get into this and try to out think what we need to do,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be about tackling Robinson in space, doing a very good job of getting off blocks, and obviously being disciplined in what we ask you to do,”
The Irish slowed Robinson for most of the first three quarters last season, when he was 3-of-13 passing for 59 yards pass before completing the long pass to Hemingway. But then Robinson broke free in the fourth quarter, completing 7-of-10 passes for 202 yards with three TD passes and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Kelly is confident the Irish defense is better this season. Through three games the Irish have given up just 30 points, the fewest points in the opening three games of a season since giving up 27 points in 1988 en route to the national championship. The 866 total yards by opponents are the fewest in the first three games since 2002, which is the last time the Irish were 3-0. The Irish haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season.
The challenge for the Irish, though is that Robinson believes he’s a better quarterback than he was the last two times he faced the Irish. While most fans remember the 2010 game for how often Robinson made the Irish miss, he watched the game film and saw how often he was hit.
“I took a lot of shots and I ran the ball a lot,” Robinson said. “Of course I’ve grown from the player I was that year. I think I throw the ball a little better, and I move a little better and I’ve slowed down and am more comfortable than I was that sophomore year.”
Robinson believes he’s grown in coach Brady Hoke’s offense, and his footwork is a lot better now and he’s more comfortable in the pocket, saying he doesn’t even think about the rush and let’s his instincts take over.
“That’s something I worked on all summer. That’s why it showed up on Saturday, and why it’ll continue to show up,” Robinson said.
The game pits two of college football’s most storied programs, ranking 1-2 in winning percentage and featuring two of the best known fight songs and helmets. The game always draws attention. There’s added intrigue this year as both teams are ranked for the first time since 2006 and the 11th-ranked Irish (3-0) seek to crack the top 10 for the first time in six years. It’s also just the ninth night game in Notre Dame Stadium history.
The rivalry started in 1877, when Michigan students taught the game to Notre Dame students, although there was a period of 79 years where they played only twice because of bad blood between the schools. There’s a question of how much longer the series will go on as the Irish begin playing five Atlantic Coast Conference teams a season in 2014.
No. 18 Michigan (2-1) leads the series 23-15-1. Irish seniors don’t want to become the first group of seniors to lose four straight to the Wolverines.
“I haven’t beaten Michigan since I’ve been here, so this is something pretty important to me,” safety Zeke Motta said.