Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech hopes Robinson uses arm, not legs

NEW ORLEANS - Denard Robinson had better get his arm loose - that is, if Virginia Tech is going to have any chance of beating Michigan in Tuesday's Sugar Bowl.

You've seen the highlights of Michigan's quarterback knifing through defenses on running plays, making opponents look silly. His legs are electric.

But what the Hokies want you to see at the Superdome or on your TV next week is Robinson cocking that right arm and trying to beat their cornerbacks in the more conventional way.

They want him to pass.

The Hokies must sell out to stop the run. Whatever it takes - extra men in the box, run blitzes, sneaking a 12th guy into the linebacking corps - they'll have to do. They know this.

Michigan knows this, too.

"You've got to stop him from running," Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges said Friday. "You want to punish him as much as you can. I think that would be a lot of people's approach, and it has been."

The problem? Most teams haven't been able to make it work. Robinson has run for 1,163yards this season. He bolted for 200 against San Diego State, 198 against Eastern Michigan. In the regular-season finale, he dashed for 170 yards on 26 carries in a rout of rival Ohio State.

If he gets anything close to that against the Hokies, it's over. Tech's players understand that. Especially considering the majority of their focus has been on preventing this very occurrence.

"Basically, that is what you have to do," Tech linebacker Tariq Edwards said of concentrating on rushing containment. "You just have to get him to throw the rest of the game. We want to make him beat us with his arm."

The two teams that have defeated Michigan this season have done that, holding Robinson to a combined 97 rushing yards.

Robinson had to put it in the air a season-high 37 times against Iowa. He completed just 17 in a 24-16 Hawkeyes win.

Robinson had to throw 24 passes against Michigan State. He connected on just nine. The Spartans won it 28-14.

The containment strategies varied, though. The Spartans brought a lot of pressure off the edge with their corners and had success getting Robinson out of rhythm. The Hawkeyes were more conservative, hanging back, keeping everything in front of them and making sure tackles.

Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster likely will try a mixture until he sees what's working.

"You've got to pick your poison, and it's got to be timed right," Foster said. "We're going to do some [pressure] things because that's what we do."

It's not that Robinson is a terrible passer. He's not. He's got a strong arm and has thrown for more than 2,000yards this season.

It's just that he's actually mortal in that phase of the game, chucking 14 picks vs. 18 touchdowns.

The Wolverines have tweaked their offense slightly since the two losses, and Robinson's growing familiarity with the system has shown. A 56-percent passer on the season, he's completed 60percent or better in three straight games.

"His accuracy goes hand in hand with understanding," Borges said. "When Denard knows what he wants to do with the ball, he seldom throws a bad pass. The only time he gets inaccurate is 1, when he's fundamentally bad, or 2, when he's indecisive."

Tech's job is to get him to become one or both, forcing him to revert to his early-season ways. That starts with hobbling his legs and bringing up passing downs.

"Coach Foster's very good at changing up coverages and doing things to kind of confuse quarterbacks," Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. "If we stop the run, I think we'll be OK."

It's the only way they will be.

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