Michigan-Notre Dame is coming up this week, and it's a game that looms ever larger for the Big Ten in the wake of Notre Dame's 20-3 demolition of Michigan State at Spartan Stadium last Saturday. The Fighting Irish neutralized Michigan State's vaunted offensive line and exposed a painful lack of speed for the Spartans.
Ah, but Michigan's got speed. More specifically, Denard Robinson's got speed—and a lot of it—and he's going to test the Notre Dame defense in ways the Spartans could have only dreamed last week.
Now, Mr. Robinson and Notre Dame go back a ways. They have a history, you see, and that is a history that, like everything else from 1993 to 2011, Notre Dame football would prefer to forget. Denard Robinson recorded the most productive day of his career (502 yards) in 2010 at Notre Dame in a 28-24 victory, then followed that up with his fourth-highest total yardage performance (446 yards) when Notre Dame came to town in 2011.
So what is it about Notre Dame that brings out the best in Denard Robinson? The answer is simple: Time and time again, the Irish defense has simply failed to execute.
Here is Denard Robinson's most famous play from the 2010 Notre Dame game (and one of the most famous of his career): an 87-yard touchdown run, the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history. What's evident is Robinson's athleticism, to be sure, but also a rather large failure for Notre Dame's defensive effort.
A linebacker crashes down to keep contain but is blocked out of the play right at the point of attack by TE Kevin Koger. Star LB Manti Te'o is so completely obliterated on his block that he takes out safety Harrison Smith in pursuit. Add a good cut block by Roy Roundtree downfield, and this one's all over for Notre Dame.
Here are all of Michigan's plays, good and bad, from that game. We won't go through each of them, obviously, but here are some lowlights.
0:29: Notre Dame's secondary bites so hard on the option look that nobody's within 10 yards of Roy Roundtree running free in the middle of the field, and it's perhaps Robinson's easiest touchdown pass of his career.
1:42: There is rarely ever a reason for a cornerback to play that far off the line with Denard Robinson at quarterback. Here, Notre Dame makes it easy by design for Robinson and Michigan to get the first down.
2:05: Novel concept here, but hear us out: Maybe cover the receivers? Again, Notre Dame just makes it easy for Robinson with poor, poor execution.
2:28: Notre Dame utterly ignores contain and Robinson incinerates them on the read option for it. 36 easy yards.
5:59: You know you want to watch it again. Unless you're a Notre Dame fan, anyway. If that's the case, well, you only have yourself to blame for even watching the video in the first place. You knew what was coming.
8:16: Another instance of Notre Dame biting hard on Robinson's first move, giving him an easy opportunity to do some damage. Here, it's a keeper off a swing pump fake, which got Manti Te'o flowing away from a rather large gap with nobody to fill it and Robinson running right through the open lane for 19 yards.
11:31: This is an incomplete pass, but not because of any great defensive effort by Notre Dame. Robinson places the ball right over Roundtree's shoulder, and although Zeke Motta is there step-for-step, all he has is a great view of Roundtree missing the ball. We'll be seeing more of Notre Dame's secondary getting themselves the best seat in the house to watch Michigan touchdowns, by the way.
13:21: This key first down on the final drive is Robinson showing off speed that Notre Dame just doesn't have. The blocking's very good, but he's running away from tacklers in traffic.
The entire rest of the drive: Good gravy, Notre Dame's secondary is horrendous. Playing so far off the ball that Michigan gets easy chunks of yards, never baiting or jumping that sideline route, never tackling well, never doing anything at a high level.
14:41: We see a lot of Harrison Smith doing bad things in this entire game, and thus it's fitting that Robinson absolutely trucks Smith at the goal line for the game-winning score.
In 2011, Notre Dame did a better job keeping Robinson in check..for three quarters. Robinson then went off for four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and while they weren't all pure failures on Notre Dame's part—the opening play was a fumble recovery and score for Robinson before anyone even realized what was going on—the Michigan comeback wouldn't have happened if Notre Dame's secondary wasn't so, so terrible at defending the pass.
4:28: You may not think there's a defensive lineman who's incapable of tackling a 6'0", sub-200-pound QB like Robinson. May we present to you Kapron Lewis-Moore, who hugs Robinson's legs Jeff Van Gundy-style just long enough for Robinson to find Hemingway breaking free on a crossing route for a huge gain. One botched tackle by Gary Gray later, and we're off to the races.
6:27: It's just a simple jump ball, but when Gary Gray's there playing defense, it's good enough for a Michigan touchdown.
7:01: Okay, this isn't a Denard Robinson play at all, but it is beyond hilarious that Tommy Rees audibles and adjusts for 10 seconds, then does that with the football. Just like they drew it up!
7:41: Another jump ball, this one in double-coverage. And since it's Notre Dame's secondary, the only guy actually adjusting to the ball is Junior Hemingway.
10:04: Ah yes, the long pass to Jeremy Gallon that saved this game. Nobody covered Gallon. Nobody even bothered. You want to know how Denard Robinson racks up so many yards against Notre Dame? The secondary basically gives him big plays over and over.
10:46: Another jump ball, another Notre Dame cornerback in no position to make a play on the ball. Operation: Throw at Gary Gray is once again a resounding success. Poor Gary Gray. At least his career is over and he never has to play Michigan again.
Is this something Michigan and Notre Dame fans should expect more of this Saturday? Perhaps. Navy QB Trey Miller had a relatively productive day throwing the ball, considering it's Navy we're talking about. Mobile quarterback causing problems for the Irish secondary? You don't say.
That said, Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell had a rough go of it last Saturday, but that was as much about receivers dropping passes as it was good coverage by the Irish—and to be fair, the coverage was very good.
But time and time again, Notre Dame has looked utterly incapable of defending Robinson either on the ground or through the air. Don't be surprised if Robinson rises to the occasion against his favorite opponent one last time.