“We feel we can get back and create havoc in the backfield,” Short says. “Make it hard for him to throw a pass or get a scramble run. Be in his face all game. Make it confusing. Messing up his mind the whole game and trying to create turnovers.”
The task seems formidable. Robinson is the Big Ten's third-leading rusher, with a 110.3-yard-a-game average. He leads the conference in total offense, at 319.5 yards.
Much of that came against Air Force and Massachusetts. In losses to Notre Dame and Alabama, Robinson was far less effective. Against Alabama he was 11-for-26 with two interceptions; he rushed 10 times for 27 yards. Against Notre Dame he was 13-for-24 with four interceptions. He did rush for 90 yards, but needed 26 carries.
Yes, the Boilers have noticed, although they're not about to provide bulletin board material. Besides, they remember last year, when a defense geared to stopping Robinson got torched by tailbacks Fitzgerald Toussaint (20 carries, 170 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Michael Shaw (56 yards on five carries and a TD), and receivers Jeremy Gallon (three catches for 79 yards) and Roy Roundtree (two catches for 61 yards).
“That whole week we were focused on trying to stop the quarterback scramble and the quarterback run, and we came up short as far as the other guys stepping up,” Short says. “Toussaint had a good game. That's one that's haunted me.
“Now we're focused on stopping Michigan's offense, period. We're not keying one guy out.”
There is one Robinson concession.
“Make everything hard for him while he's in the pocket,” Short says.
Given Robinson's athleticism and ability to turn busted plays into huge games (he's passed for 5,768 yards and 46 touchdowns; rushed for 3,670 yards and 39 TDs), you might think the Boilers must approach rushing him with caution. Not so, Short says.
“We want to create a new line of scrimmage. If you get that fast get-off and beat the man in front of you, you have time to redirect (Robinson).”
A redirected Robinson into a disciplined defensive charge can be a wonderful thing.
“You have to be sound from a defensive standpoint,” coach Danny Hope says. “If everything is geared to stop Denard, then you reduce the potential to defend the rest of their offense.
“He's a great player. Obviously, you have to be smart with your rush lanes. If you get out of your rush lanes and he sees a big opening, he sees the seas part and then he's going to take off with the ball. Then he's hard to catch. He adds a new dimension to the game.”
Purdue (3-1) faces a big opportunity. It's talked about being a Big Ten challenger. Beating Michigan (2-2) would be a huge first step in that direction.
“We always emphasize we want to start off fast,” quarterback Caleb TerBush says. “The same goes for the Big Ten season. Michigan is a tough team, but we feel we're a tough team, too. We have to play our 'A' game and execute.”
That means not giving this game more meaning that it deserves.
“It's a fantastic opportunity,” Hope says, “but it's not necessarily a do-or-die situation. It would be huge to get another win at Ross-Ade Stadium.”
To do so means a defense that, as Short says, is stout upfront. “If we get a hold of their running,” he says, “the game should be in our favor.”