Penn State Football: I Spy Michigan Quarterback Denard Robinson
“Um,” answered Penn State redshirt sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro on Tuesday. He was looking to buy some time.
“Any chance you’ll be playing a spy against Michigan’s Denard Robinson on Saturday?”
A spy would be a Penn State defensive player assigned to mirror or follow Robinson, the hyper-elusive Michigan quarterback, no matter where he goes during Saturday night’s contest in Beaver Stadium (the Wolverine locker room notwithstanding).
Massaro gave a little smile. You could tell he was thinking.
Um, tell the truth? The truth, most probably, is that defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has hatched such a plan to slow Robinson, an offensive machine who runs for 156.6 yards and passes for 188.4 more per game.
Massaro could spill the beans, and risk the wrath of Scrap. To say nothing of Joe Paterno.
Or, um, he could fib to the 30-or-so media members gathered in the Beaver Stadium press room. Of course, they’ll find out the truth shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, as will a national television audience watching on ESPN.
Not an easy decision. A bright, articulate guy with a 3.82 grade point average in finance, Massaro knew he had to choose his words carefully.
So he paused. For 3.89 seconds (I timed it when listening again to my tape recorder). Massaro didn’t say a word.
The longer he waited, the more likely that any espionage in place about Penn State’s plans to dull Denard with a spy would be blown.
So, finally, he replied: “It’s possible.”
That sufficed for about four minutes, when the inevitable follow-up question came. Who, in so many words, would be Penn State’s spy?
Massaro paused again.
You don’t get to be a member of the National Honor Society and the Annenberg Science Symposium, or be named the Outstanding Contributor to Marple Newton High School (Pa.), without thinking on your feet.
“I think we all will have to watch him,” Massaro said. “That’s the best answer I can give.”
SPY VS. STAR
If the Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) do indeed employ a spy to try to keep Robinson in check – if that is possible – the two players most likely to get the assignment are linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodge.
Whoever draws the assignment will need to be fast, smart, mobile in all four directions, disciplined and then be able to play with controlled abandon as soon as Robinson makes his move…er, moves.
They’ll especially need to be quick. Because if they aren't, no one on the Penn State defense is fast enough to catch Robinson, who runs a 4.32 40 and a 10.44 100.
(But wait, you say. Hasn't Penn State’s Devon Smith run a 10.42 100 and a 4.19 40? Yeah, sure. But Smith is 5-foot-7, 157 pounds and plays on offense. Interesting idea, though.)
Which leaves us with Mauti and Hodges.
Mauti, a 6-foot-2, 229-pound junior, ranks third on the squad in tackles, with 39, despite missing a game. He’s the quickest, most aggressive of the linebackers. He doesn’t hesitate, he can fill holes and he plays with the urgency and fire that could match the shiftiness of the six-foot, 193-pound Robinson. The only down side is that the fiery Mauti may lack some of the discipline necessary to wait out any move by Robinson.
Hodges, a 6-2, 228-pound sophomore, is similar to Mauti in size. But he is faster. Hodges got hurt during the opening kickoff of the Alabama game, and has played in only three games in 2010. So he’s still getting into midseason shape. He’s an outside linebacker, but played safety as recently as last season. And – this is important – he was a three-year starter at quarterback for Paulsboro High School in New Jersey.
HERE’S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON
If Michigan’s first seven games – 5-2, 1-2 in the Big Ten -- are any indication, it will take a village to stop Robinson.
The Michigan sophomore averages 8.0 yards per carry, has nine touchdowns running and nine touchdowns passing. He already has run for 1,096 yards and passed for 1,319 more.
He has scored two touchdowns in four games and ran for 258 yards against Notre Dame. In that game against the Irish, he also passed for 244 yards, giving him a U-M single game record of 502 yards.
Against Indiana, he ran for 217 yards and passed for 277, accounting for five touchdowns. He’s the only player in NCAA history to run and pass for at least 200 yards in two games during the same season.
And he came close against UConn as well. Against the Huskies he carried the ball 29 times for 198 yards and completed 19 of 22 passes (86.3 percent) for 188 yards.
“This kid here came out of nowhere,” Paterno said. “What did he run, for a couple of hundred yards earlier in the year against a couple of football teams? He's awfully dangerous.
“He's got great instincts running with the football. He throws the ball well when they decide he's going to (and) they're going to give him the protection he needs. But he's tough to rush. He's tough to get after, because he does move so well.”
And that’s why Massaro knows he’s going to have to alter the way he goes after the passer.
“Defensively, we’re going to have to change our rush lines this week,” said Massaro, tied for second on the team with sacks and tackles for a loss, with 7-1/2, even though he didn’t start the first two games of the season.
“If we let Robinson escape the pocket, there are going to be big rush lanes open in our defense,” Massaro added. “We want to control our rushes and get our hands up at the line of the scrimmage.”
870 YARDS OF DESPAIR
The way Penn State’s defense is playing lately, it may be like pouring gasoline on a fire when the Nittany Lions take the field against Robinson.
In its last two games –- a 33-12 loss to Illinois and a 33-21 win over Minnesota – the Penn State defense has surrendered 870 yards of total offense. At least it’s an equal opportunity defense; the Lions gave up 454 yards through the air and 416 on the ground.
Over those two games, the PSU secondary was torched for five touchdowns, while grabbing only one interception, as opposing quarterbacks completed 42 of 69 passes (61 percent). Penn State was doubled up on first downs, 49-24. And the Illini and Gophers ran off 148 plays to just 108 for Penn State.
Paterno was asked if he was worried about the recent offensive barrage against the Nittany Lions.
“Sure, it's a concern. What else do you want me to say?” he barked. “We're trying to get a little better. I said after the Illinois game I didn't think we had played very well defensively.
“I thought we played a little better against Minnesota, but you've got to give the other guys credit. The quarterbacks, the running backs, the size of the offensive lines that we're playing against, the organization, the coaching. Yeah, but it's still -- when you give up that kind of yardage, it concerns you.”
THE BEST DEFENSE IS…
So what is the best defense against Robinson?
Penn State offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski, a two-time Academic All-American, may have the right idea.
“We want to hold onto the ball," Wisniewski said, "and keep Robinson and Michigan off the field as long as we can.”