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Football Mon Oct 04 2010

Big Ten Football Monday: The Weekend That Was

b10logo.jpgThe Iowa Hawkeyes maintained their excellent Steel Curtain impression, Michigan State closed the door on Wisconsin and I continued my blood feud with Denard Robinson, everyone's favorite new college football superstar.

Better late than even later, we review The Weekend That Was in Big Ten football (plus Notre Dame, because they own this town).

Best win -- Michigan State 34, Wisconsin 24

Et cetera -- Iowa 24, Penn State 3 ... Ohio State 24, Illinois 13 ... Michigan 42, Indiana 35 ... Northwestern 29, Minnesota 28 ... Notre Dame 31, Boston College 13.

Sitting this one out -- Purdue (they petitioned for clemency)

Best Charley Steiner** -- Adrian Clayborn, Iowa

clayborn.jpgI won't say it would be a disappointment -- that's going too far -- but I think after five weeks it's clear the Hawkeyes will be missing an opportunity if they don't win the Big Ten championship this season. That isn't to say they will win it, or even that they're the No. 1 contender. But with this team, this defense, this defensive line and this destructive, dreadlocked defensive end, Iowa has every chance to beat Ohio State and any other team in the conference.

Clayborn, a 6-4, 285-pound fifth-year senior, was a holy terror against Penn State's freshman quarterback and patty-cake offensive line, finishing with a game-high 10 tackles, including three of them behind the line of scrimmage.

He and line mates Karl Klug, Mike Daniels, Christian Ballard and Broderick Binns got a great rush with only four men and held the overmatched Nittany Lions to 54 rushing yards and 3-of-13 on third-down conversion attempts.

The group's best effort came at the end of Penn State's 70-yard drive to open the second half. It was one of only two especially successful drives the Lions managed all night, but it had them poised to cut Iowa's lead to 17-10.

Clayborn and the defensive line came through on the goal line, stuffing runs up the middle on second- and third-and-goal. On fourth down from the 1-yard line, they stoned rookie quarterback Rob Bolden again on an uncommonly tentative option run. Linebacker Jeremiha Hunter hit Bolden first at the line of scrimmage and Ballard cleaned up, keeping Bolden from falling forward into the end zone.

Best hype machine -- Denard Robinson, Michigan

I have nothing against the kid personally, but this is driving me nuts. When Robinson wins the Heisman Trophy in a few months -- if he can stay healthy all season -- it will be a triumph of national observers who aren't able or willing to actually watch most of his games. They'll see highlights of his stunning touchdown runs and read in wonderment of his record-setting yardage totals.

But if you look a little closer, Robinson's otherworldly production is primarily a function of the Rich Rodriguez spread offense, which is once again terrorizing the college football world after a rocky transplant from the mountains of West Virginia.

Denard Robinson might be the country's most dynamic athlete, but all we really know is he's the most athletic guy who gets the ball on nearly every play, with a terrific supporting cast. I'd venture there are at least 40 other college football players who could put up similar numbers if they were in his shoes. Remember how awesome Pat White was a few years ago at WVU?

OK, but so what? It's not Robinson's fault he's in a great spot -- and he's obviously not the only player succeeding because he's in a system that takes advantage of his skills.

Mostly I just want people to stop acting like he's a real quarterback. He's not. He's a fantastic athlete, with sprinter's speed, great instincts and serious wiggle, and he deserves all the accolades you would give any tailback with instant-touchdown potential on every play.

But he is a painfully raw passer, no matter what his yardage totals suggest. The vast majority of his completions are wide receiver screens or slant passes where the other guy does most of the work with yards after the catch. Saturday at Indiana, 180 of his 277 passing yards (65 percent) came after the catch. Throws more than 10 or 12 yards down the field are an adventure.

(The notable exception was by far Robinson's best pass of the day: a 42-yard bomb to Junior Hemingway, delivered under extreme duress, that set up Robinson's game-winning, 4-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds left. So good on him for that one.)

If you want to give Robinson the Heisman because he's our most terrifying running threat, go ahead. He's the most exciting player in college football. Just don't tout him as the best.

Will I ever get through a Big Ten column without ranting about Denard Robinson? Tune in next week to see.

Best put-away drive -- Michigan State

The Spartans captured the weekend's best win by responding strong after Wisconsin drove 70 yards to pull within 27-24 with 10:53 left. Starting at their own 16-yard line, Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker & Co. went 84 yards to all but seal the victory, chewing up more than 8 minutes.

Cousins got the drive started by converting on a pair of third-and-long passes, including a 35-yarder to Larry Caper that flipped the field from the MSU 28-yard line to the Wisconsin 37. Baker and the offensive line took over from there, wearing down the Badgers on the ground.

Finally, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Don Treadwell or Mark Dantonio or whoever was calling the plays broke a string of eight runs with a pass: Cousins faked a handoff and threw to B.J. Cunningham, who had slipped behind the defense along the back line of the end zone.

Best Milton Berle -- Jim Tressel, Ohio State

Like Uncle Miltie, Tressel always shows just enough to win, especially in Big Ten play. I have no real idea if Saturday's uninspiring win at Illinois was a sign of weakness or another case of the Buckeyes waiting to bring out the big guns until they're absolutely necessary. Certainly the performance was nothing all that special, save for 66- and 35-yard runs by Terrelle Pryor. Once he got banged up on the first drive of the third quarter, Ohio State just grinded out the win with Dan Herron and the offensive line. Oh well.

Worst penalty -- Justin Green, Illinois

Illinois, accordingly, hung around until the very end, but the final blow came on third-and-1 with 3:11 left. Trailing 17-13, the Illini needed a defensive stop -- and they got it ... but Green, the cornerback on the far side of the field, had managed to line up offsides. Ohio State had new life, and four Herron runs later, an insurmountable 24-13 lead with 1:49 left.

Least impressive -- Notre Dame

The Irish had a 21-0 lead before Boston College gained its second offensive yard, but whew, was it a sloppy mess after that. Brian Kelly couldn't have been happy -- and by the looks of all that yelling on the sideline, he was not.


Worth watching -- Michigan State at Michigan

Also -- Illinois at Penn State ... Indiana at Ohio State ... Minnesota at Wisconsin ... Purdue at Northwestern.

** Charley Steiner: "Follow me to freedom"

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dkirk / October 4, 2010 10:19 PM

Ten bucks says this "Jim Reedy" guy has never played football, never coached football and, obviously, doesn't understand how 4.32 speed and a rocket arm translate to the game. Stick to writing childrens' books, Jim...please.

Kareem / October 4, 2010 10:58 PM

Wow, is Denard Robinson dating your ex girlfriend? Every great player has a favorable situation so why aren't you pointing that out for other players? Give the kid credit where credit is due, his numbers are unlike any player in recent memory, if it was as easy as you made it sound, then it would happen more often, its just that simple.

Brian L. / October 4, 2010 11:07 PM

I think Reedy's point is that Robinson does have 4.32 speed (no rocket arm, sorry) and is in the most favorable situation. He's just stating the fact that maybe there are better players (not more gifted athletes) doing as much for their team. Such as: Adrian Clayborn at Iowa, for instance. This is all, of course, rendered moot once Robinson is injured but that's a petty argument to make until it happens. See: Cutler, Jay.

Jim Reedy / October 5, 2010 12:21 AM

Hello, gents. My central point: Robinson is a fantastic runner who isn't yet a very good passer, no matter how strong his arm is or how many (much?) YAC his quick speedy receivers pile up.

That's still good enough to make him the most dangerous player in college football, but it's this fallacy of his equal aptitude running and throwing that underpins his new status as The Best Player in College Football. Sports pundits freak out when they see "500 offensive yards" when he was responsible for (the admittedly amazing total of) 300 yards, mostly rushing.

He's done a fantastic job running Rich Rodriguez's zone-read spread offense, which is specifically designed to keep the ball in the hands of (and result in lots of yards for) a hellaciously dynamic quarterback. Simply put: Robinson gets more touches than most players.

Of course, Robinson is so fast, quick and instinctive that he makes the most of those touches. That's how a well-blocked running play turns into a 72-yard touchdown.

@DKirk -- What does it matter that Denard Robinson is 100 times a better football player than me? I am in fact very familiar with American football and have seen several games.

-- This "Jim Reedy" guy

Ben / October 5, 2010 7:36 AM

I don't remember Pat White ever even coming close to putting up the kind of numbers Denard is putting up right now. Regardless of system, if it was that easy to put up these kinds of numbers, more people would have done it by now. Please tell me that last time somebody had a 5 game span like this - well, really more like 4 1/4, because he only played a quarter of the Bowling Green game. I mean, he makes good decisions - what more can you ask of a quarterback? He manages the game and takes what the defense gives him - you can't fault him for being athletic and knowing that more times than not, he can squeak through the hole and get a ton of yards.

Ben / October 5, 2010 8:00 AM

Also, it's the quarterback's job to get the ball to the receiver in a spot where he has a chance to make a play. So when you say that 180 of his passing yards in the Indiana game came after the catch, I think you're downplaying Denard's role in putting his receivers in a position to be successful. That's like saying that assists don't really count for much in basketball, because the person who passed the ball didn't really score on his own.

Jim Reedy / October 5, 2010 10:46 AM

@Ben --

You're definitely right that Pat White did not put up these yardage numbers. He wasn't nearly as explosive as Robinson is (which partly explains why he now is playing minor-league baseball instead of professional football).

But I don't understand how anyone can argue Robinson is a top-flight passer right now. He executes well on receiver screens and quick slants. He seems to make good decisions. That's not nothing, so yes, let's give him credit for an assist.

So that's what he is, in the passing game: He's an assist man. He's not the straw stirring the drink. If he "manages the game and takes what the defense gives him," that doesn't make him a top-shelf passer -- even though he's the best (and obviously most productive) runner in the country.

Ben / October 5, 2010 11:49 AM

I do agree that people might be going a little far with the talk about his true quarterback skills, but he is just a sophomore, and his career as a starter just began. He still only has one interception, which is pretty good for a sophomore starting for the first time in any system. I'm really interested to see how he does in these next few games. I don't think he's as good as he seems, but I hope he is - those once in a generation players are one of the greatest things about sports.

R.Will / October 5, 2010 1:53 PM

I'm sure it can get frustrating to keep reading about the guy, but he is just that good: 1) exceptional decision contributes to a very high QB rating; 2) he can throw from hash to hash; 3) he has shown great touch; 4) he has thrown downfield, but suffered from receiver drops; 5) he was top 10 in the country as a sprinter.

Back to decision making: not all of his runs are pre-designated, which means he makes the decision to run or throw. His productivity in both arenas (running and throwing) are, overall, indicative of great decision making and also of being mobile enough to be in a position to make a play.

He will face tougher defenses and his numbers will regress to normal levels, but don't doubt his talent.

Jim Reedy / October 5, 2010 3:27 PM

@Ben-- I too love watch greatness, so I'd love to see Robinson continue to improve as a passer. Most likely he he will. As you say, he's only just begun.

@R.Will-- You're right that we shouldn't discount the importance of his decision-making in the zone-read offense. There are plenty of plays where it's a binary choice based on whether one defender does X or does Y, but it is a split-second decision Robinson seems to make well.

Matt / October 5, 2010 4:04 PM

I like how everyone tries to say how bad of a passer Robinson is when he has one of the best completion percentages. Just because he does not always bomb the ball down the field does not make him a bad throwing QB. When he has needed to throw the ball, he has done so and done it quite well. Quit hating and watch the kid. He really is great.

Jim Reedy / October 5, 2010 4:24 PM

@Matt -- Regarding his completion percentage and passing efficiency rating, which ranks 4th in the nation, these are the 16 passes Robinson threw Saturday at Indiana:

1. sprint right, quick WR screen pass for 17 yards (5 plus 12 YAC gained by receiver)

2. WR screen at line of scrimmage, taken 32 yards by receiver for TD

3. WR screen at line of scrimmage, taken 5 yards by receiver

4. step forward to fake a run, step back to find receiver wide open 16 yards down the field, breaking past the defense; 58 YAC for a 74-yard TD

5. INC -- pass to the flat jarred loose from receiver; quasi-drop

6. INC -- off-target on WR screen attempt

7. roll right, hits receiver for 14 yards (10 plus 4 YAC)

8. WR screen at line of scrimmage, taken 7 yards by receiver

9. TE slips into the flat untouched, toss for a 3-yard TD

10. Quick slant for 13 yards, receiver slips tackle and adds 57 yards for 70-yard TD

11. INC -- fake WR screen, overthrows receiver streaking wide open down the field

12. quick slant for 13 yards (11 plus 2 YAC)

13. INC -- overthrown on sideline streak; tight coverage

14. INC -- off-target throw on curl pattern; tight coverage

15. INC -- overthrows yet another streak pattern down the sideline

16. BEST PASS OF THE DAY!!! Crunched by a huge defensive lineman a moment after lofting a jump ball won by his WR 42 yards downfield; sets up game-winning TD.

You're insane if you think Denard Robinson is the 4th-most accurate or polished passer in the nation.

Kareem / October 5, 2010 6:26 PM

Jim, you have not answered the question. Why haven't more people put up numbers like this if he is simply a product of his system? He is not a top-shelf passer, agreed, but hes not bad either. In fact hes got a decent arm, accuracy, and excellent decision making. However, he is the best runner. The best runner combined with a decent passing ability makes him special. It is so easy to criticize him because he's in the spotlight. Shine that light on the other candidates. How is anyone else more deserving of the top Heisman spot at this point in the season? So what if his situation is favorable, it is what it is. That is such an erroneous point to make. Thats like saying the Bulls wouldn't have won without MJ. DUHH. But they did have him, and the rest is history.

Jim Reedy / October 5, 2010 6:42 PM

@Kareem -- I did not mean to suggest that Robinson is solely a product of this offensive system. He's clearly a stunningly talented player who seems to be making all the right decisions at the helm of that offense.

You make a good point about judging on the reality at play. His penchant for racking up 500 offensive yards per game is clearly a perfect marriage of player and system -- a different player (Pat White?) in that system or Robinson in a different system might average 200-300 yards -- but of course that's not Robinson's "fault."

You said: "The best runner combined with a decent passing ability makes him special."

I agree.

Kareem / October 5, 2010 7:08 PM

Jim, thanks for responding, I am satisfied with your answers. Good responses.

John / October 6, 2010 1:42 PM


Your column was your chance to make your point. The comments section is for commenters.

Have covered 2 of Denard's games in person and 100s of others. He's special.

Who's to say what "a real quarterback" is, other than someone who leads his team to yardage and points? Denard seems pretty good at that.

Any other idea of what "a real quarterback" should be is a product of a closed mind.

And the "40 other guys out there" quip is patently absurd.

Still, thanks for instigating a lively debate.


Jim Reedy / October 6, 2010 4:54 PM

@John -- I'd address your points, but apparently that's not allowed. Thanks for clearing that up. And I wouldn't want to say anything else "patently absurd."

Jim Reedy / October 6, 2010 5:17 PM

ESPN's Ivan Maisel says most of what I was trying to say, except better:

Denard Robinson is at the right place at the right time

mike / October 6, 2010 7:44 PM

who is this dkirk guy? has he ever seen denard throw the ball? rocket arm? lol

Steve in Chicago / October 6, 2010 10:11 PM


Your breakdown of DR's passing performance in the Indiana game would be a lot more persuasive if you also could tell us how his YAC stats compare to those of the average quarterback and to those of players you consider "real" quarterbacks.

Without this info for comparison, there's no way to judge how much his YAC numbers should detract from his total yardage achievement.

Your failure to address this makes me doubt the validity of everything else you write.


Jim Reedy / October 7, 2010 2:51 AM

@Steve -- You make a valid point -- certainly every QB benefits to some degree from YAC -- but does 65 percent not strike you as high? Furthermore, how should this incompletion in one part of my argument allow you disregard every other point I've made?

Steve in Chicago / October 7, 2010 9:18 AM

I have no basis for judging the 65 percent. What it 'strikes' me (and you) as is irrelevant, since neither of us apparently has any way of evaluating this stat.

I didn't say that I disregard all your other points. What I said is that because you didn't care enough to think through this consideration, it makes me doubt the level of thought you put into all the rest of your note. This is consistent with the impression that you leave that you are only interested in railing on Denard Robinson for some personal reason that has nothing to do with how he really is performing.

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