By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 24, 2011
Would Brady Hoke trade Denard Robinson for Ryan Lindley?
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Would he choose his newer, sleeker, faster quarterback or his former tall, prototype, NFL-made model?
The junior quarterback Robinson made several good arguments on Saturday, running for 200 yards for the third time in his career, and three touchdowns, tying a career high. Plus, his team won — Robinson and the 22nd-ranked Wolverines beat Lindley and the rest of Hoke’s former players at San Diego State 28-7, improving to 4-0 on the season.
So what’s the debate?
Well, Robinson did most of his talking with his legs, not his arm. Tradition says quarterbacks aren’t supposed to pass for less than 100 yards in consecutive weeks, as Robinson has, and be considered stars.
Denard Robinson isn’t traditional. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges are realizing that, because the offense that Robinson ran on Saturday was hardly recognizable from the one Aztecs' quarterback Lindley played in the past two years under Borges and Hoke.
“If the best player on the field — and I’m talking about both teams now — the best player is a spread quarterback, it’s not unusual that they’re in the spread about 80 percent of the time,” said San Diego State coach Rocky Long, Hoke’s former defensive coordinator.
“Every once in awhile they line up the same way and they hand the power play, and they ran I think a couple sprint outs. And they ran a bootleg or two, but that’s the only thing that looks like last year’s (San Diego State) offense. The rest of it is spread, which is smart.”
In the first quarter, it seemed like the debate would be over rather quickly.
Robinson’s third snap of the game was a nifty 19-yard run. Three plays later, he scored an easy follow-the-leader five-yard touchdown.
Three plays later, Robinson and junior running back Vincent Smith ran a rare option play. Seeing no one between him and the endzone, Robinson knifed through the line for a 53-yard touchdown run.
Long’s sophisticated 3-3-5 defense blitzed Robinson too often in the first half. So Robinson, Smith and redshirt sophomore running back Fitz Toussaint, who started at running back, ran past the pressure and into the open space behind it.
When Long adjusted, dropping his players back in coverage in the second half, Robinson had an even tougher time throwing the ball.
Receivers were underthrown. His feet weren’t always set. Sometimes Robinson had all day to throw. And he just missed his receiver or, on a couple of occasions, made poor decisions.
The instance came on a third down, when Robinson stepped up and had room to run for the first. But perhaps conscious of what Borges had taught him about staying true to his progression, he tried to force the ball into a well-covered receiver and it was tipped and picked.
It was Robinson’s third-straight poorly thrown ball, his second interception of the game and his sixth of the young season.
If it weren’t for a wide-open dump-screen pass to Smith, which went for 32 yards, Robinson would’ve finished the game with 61 passing yards.
His 93 total yards through the air were the lowest complete-game total in his career. He broke his record from a week ago, when he threw for 95 yards.
“(Former TCU quarterback) Andy Dalton had plenty of problems with (that defense) a year ago — and it’s not an easy defense to try and figure things out,” Hoke said. “But he did a good job there in the run game.”
Every week, Borges and Hoke key in on Robinson’s footwork: feet set, clean pocket, choose wisely. That was the case several times Saturday, but Robinson still couldn’t deliver.
“They go out there and they fly around everywhere,” Robinson said. “So you can say it was (the defensive scheme), but we worked on it all week and I’ve just got to execute.
“Just some throws, I shouldn’t have forced them. Just take my time and do what coach taught me.”
In the fourth quarter, Lindley looked like the NFL-caliber quarterback Hoke spoke of all week — feet set and follow through. Michigan couldn’t have played better coverage on several throws Lindley completed. But the Wolverines had a plan early on — hit Lindley and make him scared of getting hit again.
“We knew that if we got in his face, got pressure to him, pressed the pocket on him, he’d get happy feet and make missed throws,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Martin. “He’s a good quarterback and he can sling that thing around. If you don’t get in his face, he can throw it as well as anyone.”
Even with a clean pocket, and no pressure, Lindley’s throws were off target at times. When the pressure did come, he got rid of the ball so early the receivers were still running their routes. Michigan’s mind games had no bigger impact than on third downs, where Lindley and San Diego State converted just 8-of-18 attempts.
Lindley didn’t have much help from sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman, who was the nation’s second-leading rusher entering the game. He fumbled twice.
Still, with Lindley’s 11-for-25, 114-yard three-quarter performance, the Aztecs were within two touchdowns of upsetting Hoke’s new school after Lindley threw a strike to his wide receiver, who had a Michigan defender draped all over him.
Then Lindley threw for 139 yards in the fourth quarter, making NFL throw after NFL throw — the kind of throws Borges wished Robinson would make.
Lindley made his case.
But the Aztecs had to stop Robinson with eight minutes left and the ball near midfield. Robinson did what he does best, sprinting for a nail-in-the-coffin, catch-me-if-you-can 30-yard run.
New examples arise each week as to why Hoke shouldn’t try and pound a square peg into a round hole. But he still struggles with the question: how can he play to Robinson’s strengths and still have a respectable West Coast passing game and a traditional running back-led ground attack? It's an even tougher question if Robinson’s running ability or the threat to run is winning games.
“We know we just have to sustain drives, get the ball flowing and get in a rhythm,” Smith said after the game.
That’s up to Robinson, specifically his arm.
“I want to see what plays he got us into,” Hoke said, defending his quarterback. “That’s something that the quarterback never gets credit for.
“We won the game.”
Hoke's quarterback is now the fourth-leading rusher in the country with 552 yards, but he's also tied for fourth-most in interceptions thrown, and tied for 84th in passing yards.
But would Hoke choose Ryan Lindley over Denard Robinson?