On Saturday night, Notre Dame will get one last chance to beat a Denard Robinson led Michigan squad. In the last two games against the Irish, Robinson has tallied nearly 1,000 yards of total offense and engineered back-to-back game-winning drives in the closing seconds. As Brian Kelly put it earlier this week: "He's a superior football player. He's not a great player — he's the best player on the field."
Although Robinson is likely to break a few big runs on Saturday, Notre Dame's deep and talented front 7 should limit his effectiveness on the ground. Frankly, I'm more concerned about his running ability setting up big plays for Michigan's underrated receiving corps. If Notre Dame over commits to the run, look for the Wolverines to test the young Irish secondary with a variety of play-action passes and bubble screens.
Let's look at some examples of how Michigan's offense exploits defenses committed to stopping the run. The first play comes from the 2010 Notre Dame game.
In this play, Robinson lines up with three receivers and a running back to the wide side of the field. Notre Dame has 8 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Robinson takes the snap and appears to be running a QB power play. The linebackers and nickelback attack the line of scrimmage.
As the Irish defenders collapse to stop the run, Junior Hemingway runs free down the seam.
This is an easy read and throw for Robinson. Even without a blown defensive assignment, Michigan would have had a favorable one-on-one matchup down the seam.
Although Rich Rodriguez was calling the shots in the previous example, current Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has been flexible enough to blend spread elements with his West Coast offense to suit Robinson's strengths.
The next play comes from the UMass game last week. The concept and result are similar to the previous play.
Michigan lines up in an Ace Twins formation with Robinson in shotgun. UMass counters with 4-3 defense. Notice how the backside safety is playing shallow to provide run support. With the defense focused on the run, the Wolverines should have a numbers advantage in the passing game.
The play-action fake freezes the linebackers while both tight ends release and run down the seams. The middle of the field is wide open.
Although the backside safety engages one tight end, the other tight end has no defender within 5 yards. Robinson once again has an easy read and throw.
The end result is a Wolverine touchdown. The respect for Robinson's running ability exposed the defense to a big play in the passing game.
In the previous two plays, Robinson was able to make a short seam throw to a receiver who was so wide open he really didn't have to make a read. In the next play, however, Robinson has to decide whether to throw a skinny post or a bubble screen.
Michigan lines up with running backs on either side of Robinson and three receivers. Alabama is in a nickel defense with two deep safeties.
At the snap, the nickelback shows blitz while one of the deep safeties moves up to cover the slot receiver. Although the safety moves closer to the line of scrimmage, the defensive shift leaves the slot receiver with an 8-yard cushion and a blocker to the outside.
The play fake freezes the linebackers. Robinson can throw the bubble screen to the wide side of the field or look for the skinny post to the short side. Borges has either called a "packaged play" or the bubble screen is a sight adjustment by the slot receiver.
With no linebackers in the vicinity and a receiver with inside leverage, Robinson has a clear passing lane on the skinny post.
Although Robinson delivers a pretty good throw, the cornerback recovers and breaks up the pass at the last moment. The play call and read were sound against this particular defensive alignment, but superior athleticism trumps X's and O's on this play.
Michigan will be the best offense Notre Dame has faced to date. Denard Robinson is a unique athlete who can hurt a defense both on the ground and through the air (even if it's not pretty). Brian Kelly has preached a "balanced" approach to defending Robinson, but look for the Irish to focus on stopping the run first in an effort to make Michigan one dimensional. Even if the front 7 can contain Robinson on the ground, the threat of him running could leave the Irish vulnerable to play-action passes and bubble screens similar to the plays above.
Go Irish. Beat Skunkbears.