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A Tale of Two Quarterbacks?

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When he lined up for the first snap of the season on September 4th, there wasn't a college football fan in the country who knew what to expect from Denard Robinson.  How could anyone know what was coming?  After spending his freshman year as little more than a wildcat quarterback   one whose lack of formal training was readily apparent next to the polished sheen of Tate Forcier's mechanical precision   it was easy to discount his ability to be an every down quarterback.  Yet reports from inside the program were positively glowing.  Coaches and players alike claimed he had "made the leap" over the offseason.  I was optimistic, but cautiously so.  I didn't want to get burned again.

Twenty-four hours after that first game ended you could not have found a fan in the nation who had no opinion on Denard Robinson.  People talked about how Rich Rodriguez finally had his kind of quarterback.  Michigan fans got carried away with excitement in what is almost a September right of passage (long before the hope of redemption in '09 there were title hopes in '99, '00, '02, and '03 that were dashed, and those are just the ones I remember), and some even began to whisper of a Heisman run.  Others were skeptical, "wait until he faces a real defense" and "he won't survive two games in the Big Ten."  Everyone thought things were simple.  He was either gods gift to the spread offense or a porcelain tackling dummy.  But we all know things aren't ever simple.

It is hard to qualify exactly how much Denard Robinson matured between November 2009 and September 2010, but his stats from last year paint a pretty grim picture of his abilities as a freshman: 14/31, 188 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs.  Furthermore, these passing stats were compiled on what looked like a single page worth of plays out of the playbook.  Simple out routes and hitches were the easiest completions, and always the first and only read.  Downfield throws were more challenging and disastrous for Robinson.  While it is advisable to throw bullets on short routes, down field passes over the middle require just enough arc to drop the ball in to the receiver over the top of linebackers and between the safeties.  Robinson seemed to throw everything on a line which led to tipped balls and interceptions.  Then there were the flat out bad reads, like the throw that ended the comeback against Iowa:

Martavious Odoms had no one within 10 yards of him, but Robinson ignored his check downs and tried to force a ball deep.  You can't blame a kid who comes to campus as raw as Robinson for not being able to contribute as quickly as someone like Forcier.  All you can hope is that he puts in the time in the offseason and gets better.

That is exactly what Denard Robinson did.  He learned the playbook, improved his mechanics, and earned the support and trust of his teammates by showing up to everything and becoming a team leader.  He then flashed his new found poise at the spring game.  The stats from the spring were good, but it was something else about how Robinson played that really jumped out.  He showcased a level of comfort that had never been there before, evidenced by just  how much faster and more decisive he played.  He knew where his receivers would be and if the throws weren't open he was quick to scramble for yardage.  On top of that, the throws themselves looked much better as his throwing motion had improved tremendously.  MGoVideo compiled the every snap video of Robinson at the spring game, and it is startling:

I was so entranced by the beauty of some of those passes   like the deep post to Roy Roundtree or the seam route to Terrence Robinson   that I overlooked some of the little things.  The few throws to receivers running outs and hitches that were either high or low, the overthrown bubble screen, and just how soft the coverage was.  But unlike the previous year the mistakes were deviations from the norm,not the expected outcome every time he pulled up to throw.  Robinson had gained confidence and was playing like an athletic quarterback, not an athlete who takes snaps.

This was the Denard Robinson that we saw through the first five games this season.  His passes were crisp and his reads were quickly executed.  The defenses weren't great, but it was all the better when he made average defenses such as UConn and Notre Dame look bad, while making bad defenses like Indiana and Bowling Green look helpless.  His numbers were staggering:  1000 yards passing with a top five passer efficency ranking, and 900 yards on the ground with a nearly double digit ypc average.  I've had NCAA seasons on Playstation that didn't touch that.

Over at mgoblog, Brian Cook was continually amazed by the precision and confidence that Robinson was showing early in the season.  On the "Hennechart" (a game by game log that tracks a passers accuracy and decision making), Robinson was posting Down Field Success Rates anywhere from 66% to 73% (on par with some of Chad Henne's better games).  Robinson continually took what defenses gave him until the opportunity came for a big play which he broke off with ease.  When teams decided to sit back in a soft zone and try to cover all his options, Robinson would pick the zone apart with hitches and slants.  When the other team got antsy and crashed linebackers and safeties, Robinson would execute a play action or pump fake and throw over top to hand-wavingly-open receivers.  

By week five, Denard Robinson was on the top of nearly every Heisman list, but there were signs of trouble long before MSU and Iowa brought those hopes back to earth.  While the UConn game left everyone's mouths agape, the offense coasted much of the day on a limited playbook that relied on easy reads and success on the ground against an over-matched run defense.  When Robinson did pass, a spattering of hitches, outs, slants, and one PA post route worked to perfection (almost literally perfection as Robinson went 19/22).

Notre Dame was supposed to be a real test.  On the road against a talented and athletic defense Robinson willed the Wolverines back in the final minutes for the go ahead touchdown, and put up one of the best statistical performances of the year: 244 yards passing and 258 yards rushing and three touchdowns.  Yet the electric 87 yard run and last minute comeback couldn't overshadow some of the mistakes.  The Wolverines went long stretches without finishing drives with touchdowns.  Robinson had four balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, and, quoth Brian at mgoblog:

Robinson did reveal some flaws against Notre Dame, most prominently a two-play sequence during which he threw what should have been another Roundtree touchdown on a line, allowing Manti Te'o to break it up, and followed that with a badly overthrown seam to Shaw. When a downfield pass requires some air under it, Robinson is shaky.

The next week against UMass some of those fears about the deep ball were forgotten as the Minutemen decided to tighten the coverage and run more man-to-man than hadn't been previously seen by the offense.  Robinson worked the ball down the field and hit his receivers for big gains.  He completed just 10 of 14 passes, but they went for 241 yards and two touchdowns, including a fly route to Stonum that was dropped in almost perfectly over the corner back who had very good coverage.  However, we saw a 2009-like regression in Robinson's first pass of the game, a bullet over the middle to a wide open Roundtree that was tipped by a safety in zone coverage and then intercepted.

Bowling Green's plan to stop Robinson was a sacrifice to the turf gods before the game.  While it knocked him out early, it wasn't fast enough to prevent 4/4 passing for 60 yards, and 130 yards on the ground.  The only performance on the field where Robinson looked invincible was the same one that brought about serious questions regarding his durability.

After leaving the Bowling Green game early, Robinson returned for the Indiana game and put up equally impressive numbers with 277 yards passing and 217 yards rushing and five touchdowns, including the game winning drive in which he carried the ball four times and passed it once for a total of 73 yards.  Yet Indiana's run defense was so bad that they routinely over committed to stopping the run, leaving passes like this wide open:

Hemingway_td_medium

No safety help over top and a three yard cushion on a slant route.  I could have taken this one to the house.  Problem was, Robinson still missed a few wide open receivers down the field with long overthrows.

Michigan fans can be excused for being a little over excited at this point.  What Robinson did in the first five weeks was unprecedented.  He led the NCAA in rushing yards and was carrying the ball an average of almost 10 yards per carry.  On top of that his passer rating was one of the best in the country.  All signs pointed to Robinson being an unstoppable force in college football.  The problem for most of us was that we focused on the big plays, the dramatic comebacks, and the gaudy statistics while overlooking the warning signs.  Robinson had improved so much as a quarterback so quickly that many assumed it was a given that he would keep his torrid pace up.

--

This is where the skeptics chime in with their "I told you so's" about the quality of Big Ten defenses and the frailty of Denard Robinson's body.  People have claimed that Robinson is a different quarterback in the Big Ten than he was in the non-conference.  That after five games of Doctor Dilithium, someone gave Robinson a potion that turned him into Mr. Turnover.  All of these feelings came to a head as Robinson stood on the sideline late in the Iowa game while Tate Forcier led the Wolverines back to within seven point.  Robinson threw the ball on the sideline to warm up, but as Forcier moved the ball through the air in a way that Robinson had largely failed to do the last two weeks it became clear that Robinson would finish the game on the bench, injured or not.

And so expectations change.  Where once some saw Robinson as a Heisman front runner, they now see him as no more than a fraud.  Somehow a different quarterback.  It is easy for fans to see Robinson's struggles in the last two games as indicative of a greater shift in his ability.  As losses and interceptions pile up we blame it on the quarterback.  It may feel good to have a scapegoat, but it doesn't get us anywhere.

So what has changed?  The defenses, thats for sure.  Where the first five games all featured defenses that were average (UConn 54th) and below (Notre Dame 82nd, Indiana 89th), the last two games have seen two of the strongest defenses that this team will face (MSU 28th, Iowa 13th).  The biggest shift, however, has been in the way that the defenses have been able to scheme against Robinson and the Wolverine offense.  In the continual game of cat and mouse that happens week in and week out during college football season, teams have found ways to slow Robinson down.  Does this mean Robinson is a different quarterback?  No, just vulnerable to youth, inexperience, and the savvy adjustments of opposing defensive coordinators who have learned two lessons to slow The Denard Show:

1. Contain the run:

Robinson has a distinct advantage over quarterbacks like Tate Forcier and Chad Henne.  He frightens defensive coordinators.  Not with precision passes mind you, but with his ability to break through the first level, give one quick move, and then outrun everyone.  During the first five weeks of the season it became clear that opposing coordinators were worried about giving up the big running play to Robinson.  They would move safeties down into the box and stack the line of scrimmage.  Linebackers and safeties were concerned about the same things.  As soon as Robinson tucked the ball to run all 11 defenders would start running downhill toward him.  Of course all of this overcompensation led to a number of comically wide open touchdowns on slants passes as safeties were caught dead in their tracks looking to provide run support.  Most believed that this would be the defining play of Robinson's career, much like the goal line jump pass was for Tim Tebow.  The threat of Denard breaking off a 60 yard touchdown scamper was so great that the back seven of any defense would consistently be set up to see long touchdown passes fly over their heads as they ran downhill toward the ball.  Yet this play has been conspicuously absent the last two weeks, and the reason why should not surprise anyone:  Denard Robinson has not been a home run threat on the ground these past two weeks.

Good defenses are more than just great athletes, great pass defenders, and great tacklers.  Good defenses are groups of eleven players executing a game plan with maximum efficiency and discipline.  This is the reason why Notre Dame's defense, which is full of highly rated recruits and freak athletes was exposed against a player like Denard Robinson, while teams like MSU and Iowa, systematic defenses with good athletes, were able to hold him in check.  How many times did Denard Robinson get around the edge on the Iowa defense and get up the sideline?  None.  He wasn't able to because Iowa's defensive line stayed disciplined in rush lanes and stretched Robinson's keepers to the sidelines, which allowed linebackers and defensive backs time to collapse on the ball.  Can you imagine Iowa's defensive line allowing this to happen?

No.  Broderick Binns or Adrian Clayborn would have kept their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and kept separation between themselves and the blocker.  They wouldn't have been turned by the blockers to allow Robinson a seam to slip through.  This would have forced Robinson to run laterally down the line to the ever widening corner.  The defensive tackles and backside end would have fought through blocks to keep pursuit while cutting off any cutback lanes.  Meanwhile the play side corner would set up near the sideline to turn the play back toward his help.  Defensive coaches love east to west runs.  If you can get a guy moving sideways, as long as you guard the cutback you have set the rest of your defense up to collapse on the ball and make a play before the runner can get upfield.  Notre Dame and the rest of the early season opponents allowed seams to develop allowing Robinson to get upfield instead of stretching Robinson's runs to the sidelines.  These defensive breakdowns were a big reason why Robinson was so successful early in the season.

Teams like Iowa and MSU have defenses that stay in rushing lanes, don't bite on PA fakes, and fly to the ball.  Robinson is still a talented enough runner to pick up yards, and he did against both MSU (86 yards on 21 carries) and Iowa (105 yards on 18 carries).  The difference is in his longest rushes of the day, 16 and 12 yards respectively.  Iowa and MSU were content to allow Robinson to run between the tackles for five yards or stretch him to the sideline for seven, as long as they kept him from breaking off 40 and 50 yard runs.  Both Iowa and MSU excelled with their front seven at keeping Robinson from turning the ball upfield quickly it allowed the secondary to stay home and only attack Robinson after he pulled the ball down for good.  Michigan State even ensured contain by bringing its outside linebackers on blitzes to keep Robinson in the middle of the field.  Against dynamic players like Denard Robinson the danger comes when defenses begin to breakdown on the edges and allow the runner to get upfield for big plays.  Big plays on the ground force more aggressive run support from the safeties and corners, and in turn opens up the big play action pass.  Iowa and MSU refused to give up the corner.  They did not stop Denard Robinson.  They stopped the big play.

2. Make Robinson work for completions.

When UConn decided to sit in a soft zone coverage they shut down Michigan's chances for long pass plays (until they bit on PA fakes), but that opened up a lot of opportunities for Robinson to eat up chunks of 7, 8, and 9 yards on completions underneath to receivers.  Robinson was able to complete 86% of his passes because his receivers found soft spots in the zone that UConn was content to give up.  Michigan's defense has employed much the same tactic.  Bend but don't break (Until you break in a horrifying manner that makes me pull out my hair and drink heavily.  But I digress...).  Accurate quarterbacks with time to throw   cough, Chappel, cough   will be able to pick these soft zones apart and move the ball down the field.  This is what Robinson did for the most of the year, but things got more challenging the last two weeks.  Because MSU and Iowa were able to contain the run with just the defensive linemen and linebackers, it allowed for tighter pass coverage.  Most of the year Robinson has had an easy time completing passes because his receivers were open, but with better defensive backs playing tighter coverage the windows have become smaller as has the margin for error.  Furthermore Robinson's inconsistent deep throws aren't enough to keep defenses honest.

One good example of tighter coverage rattling Robinson is the second interception against MSU.  Against any of the first five teams this pass is probably a touchdown or an incompletion.  Hemingway had good position on the defender and could have easily caught any ball thrown in front of or right at him.  However, in tighter coverage the margin for error becomes smaller, and all of the sudden Robinson has to thread a pass into a tight window.  Now a pass behind Hemingway that probably falls incomplete against the soft zone of UConn or the panicking defensive backfield of Indiana is picked off by a trailing defensive back who was out of position if the throw is on target.

The coverage the last two weeks has been increasingly tight and Robinson's first read is rarely open.  This is forcing him to spend more time in the pocket looking for receivers, which is a young quarterback's worst nightmare.  This happened on Robinson's first interception against MSU.  He spent a long time in the pocket looking for a receiver (and patting the ball, which is a bad sign) and he ended up throwing a bad pass to a very open receiver that was intercepted.  Even experienced pocket passers will try to force passes when given too much time in the pocket.  The best ones will often complete the passes, but for a young quarterback that is still adjusting to reading high level college defenses, too many things can go wrong.  When Robinson unloaded a rocket down the field early in the second quarter against Iowa it was because all of his underneath options were covered.  Because Iowa had two deep safeties   and if this ever ceases to be the case it will unquestionably be one of the first signs of the apocalypse   Tyler "motherf***in'" Sash was able to make an easy play on the poorly thrown prayer.  Young quarterbacks with too much time rarely make good decisions.

MSU and Iowa both did a very good job forcing Robinson to read the defense and find open receivers rather than quickly throw to his first read.  This was largely possible because they were able to keep Robinson contained within the hashmarks with just the defensive line and linebacker support, freeing up more bodies for pass defense.  However, neither team shut down Robinson.  They simply made his throws more difficult and forced him to prove his accuracy under pressure.  Against MSU, Robinson put up a Down Field Success Rate of 68%.  He passed the ball fairly well, but as Brian said:

That success rate has to be wrong.

It's not wrong, it just doesn't weight passes based on how damaging the particular inaccurate ball is. Against MSU, Denard threw the following balls not to his receiver:

  • Endzone interception #1 on route Roundtree had two steps on. [Zero points]
  • Wide open Stonum on fly route about 20 yards downfield that's airmailed. [Three points]
  • Hitch to Odoms on second and nine from the 11 that would have been first and goal. [Zero points]
  • Endzone interception #2 on slant that Hemingway was open on. [Zero points]
  • Covered slant zinged over Grady [Zero points]
  • Bubble too far in front of Roundtree. [Seven points]
  • Other interception on route where Grady had plenty of room to the inside of the field but the ball was way, way too far outside, allowing sinking corner to react and intercept. [Zero points]

 

Michigan State tightened the margin for error, and when Robinson missed the results were catastrophic instead of inconsequential.  Even in his half of play against Iowa Robinson found some success throwing the ball.  He completed 13 of 18 passes for 96 yards.  However, Iowa didn't allow any easy completions and covered deep receivers well.  They made Denard Robinson beat them with superior passing ability.  Chad Henne can do that.  Tate Forcier can too (with one or two "oh no" moments).  Denard Robinson, for all his improvement, is not there yet.

--

In the end, this tale of two quarterbacks is all in our heads.  A function of expectations wildly exceeded and a subsequent failure to achieve those previous levels of greatness.  We want our sophomore quarterback to be as consistently great as a senior starter with three years of experience under his belt.  Worse yet we acknowledge that there is no room for error because of young defense, but can't find it in ourselves to offer that same understanding to a first year starting quarterback.

Yet there is still reason for optimism.  Despite two losses in two weeks   and stop me if you've heard this before   to two top fifteen teams, the Wolverines are still on pace to win eight games.  Robinson still managed 300 yards of offense against Michigan State, and 200 yards of offense in two quarters against one of the best defenses in the country in Iowa, a team that was holding teams to 60 yards a game but gave up 100 yards to Robinson in one half of play.

This isn't the story of two quarterbacks   a tale Doctor Dilithium and Mr. Turnover   but rather the still developing story of Denard Xavier Robinson.  His transformation thus far has been great, from wildcat quarterback as a freshman to dynamic playmaker as a sophomore.  Sure there are setbacks, but nothing good ever comes easy, and after watching Denard Robinson so far this year, I have to believe the best is yet to come.

(A special thanks to MGoVideo and MGoBlog for the videos included in this article, and the UFR's that MGoBlog provides.)