Northwestern hadn't faced Denard Robinson before last Saturday, when the Wildcats played Michigan for the first time since 2008. After 60 minutes of football, Pat Fitzgerald came away with the same basic conclusion as everybody else.
"There's no way to stop that kid," the Northwestern head coach said of Robinson. "You've just got to contain him."
True, but some teams have proved better at keeping Shoelace in a confined space than others. Including this week's opponent for the Wolverines.
Had the Heisman Trophy voting closed after five games last season, Robinson likely would have won unanimously. He had put up almost unfathomable numbers and was the talk of college football.
But then came the Michigan State game. The Spartans intercepted him three times in a 34-17 victory. While Robinson ran for 86 yards, it took him 21 carries to get there. Before that game, he'd been averaging more than nine yards per rushing attempt.
This year, Michigan State enters the rivalry game ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense. And its No. 1 goal remains the same: guard Denard.
"You just can’t let the man run around back there," Spartans safety Trenton Robinson said. "We just have to contain him. If you slip up and leave a crease down the middle, he’s going to be gone."
Northwestern had a plan to stop Robinson last week, and it worked for a while. Fitzgerald brought receiver Venric Mark in on defense as a Shoelace spy who would chase down the quarterback whenever he tried to run. The Wildcats dared Robinson to beat him with the pass, and he threw three first-half interceptions as Michigan trailed 24-14 at halftime. But just as he did in the second half against Notre Dame, Robinson busted loose, finishing with 454 total yards and four touchdowns.
The Spartans realize that they can't focus on taking just one thing away Saturday.
"We've got to stay in our gaps and play with great technique up front as a defensive line," defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. "The linebackers have got to understand when he's going to hand the ball off and when he's faking. And the defensive backs have to be able to stick on their man, because when the ball fakes come, sometimes he throws to his wide receivers downfield."
The Spartans' secondary, led by Trenton Robinson, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, will be by far the best Michigan has faced this year. It's questionable whether Robinson and his receivers can get away with the jump-ball type throws they have feasted on this season.
Above all, Mark Dantonio's defense wants to get physical with the 193-pound Robinson. That means hitting him hard, and then hitting him again.
"When you've got a guy who's not really big but who's explosive, he's most comfortable out in space," Worthy said. "That's also where the defense is most vulnerable.
"But when you get a lot of guys collapsing on him, and he starts to take a lot hits and it doesn't feel good to him, he starts getting a little more timid. That's when the tempo slows down, as it did last year. He starts to pass the ball a lot more because he's not wanting to get hit. That's when you start to see the game plan change a little bit."
Michigan State worked that plan to perfection last time out against Ohio State. The defense manhandled the Buckeyes offensive line to pressure Braxton Miller and never let the elusive freshman wiggle free while sacking him nine times. But the true freshman Miller is no Robinson, not yet anyway.
Yet it's no secret that Robinson wore down last year after accumulating so many hits. The better defenses in the Big Ten, including Iowa and Ohio State, held him below his standard. First-year head coach Brady Hoke went into this season hoping to lessen the load off his star quarterback, but the offense has had to adjust to Robinson's skills. He's still averaging 17 carries per game.
Can Robinson make it through another full season of hits? This week will be Michigan's seventh straight game without a week off, and last week Robinson sat out a few snaps after taking a shot on his nonthrowing hand. (He had a season-high 25 carries against Northwestern, too).
"We're always concerned [about Robinson's health] on a daily basis," Hoke said. "The way we practice, he's going to get bumped around a little bit with some of the things we do. But he's a pretty tough guy, and he's got a great mentality about the game of football and his teammates and how he wants to perform for them. So far, we're hanging in there."
Whether Michigan State can hang onto the Paul Bunyan Trophy ultimately will come down to whether they can stop, or at least contain, Robinson.
"You've got to keep him corralled," Dantonio said. "That's a lot easier said than done."