- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson is a nightmare to stop, a whirl of dreadlocks leaving behind defenders who shake their heads in awe and wonder how he got away.
Teams have tried to take away the Michigan quarterback's running ability, and he still finds holes. Opponents have tried to force him to pass to win, and he has. They've tried blitzing and spying, being aggressive and passive, and little has worked on a consistent basis.
Nick Saban and Alabama will take a shot at containing Robinson on Saturday night. It should be one of the game's telling matchups, the great defensive mind of the Crimson Tide's coach against the improvisational skills and escapability of the Wolverines' quarterback.
Alabama obviously doesn't have the benefit of having faced Robinson, as Big Ten teams do. But for some, experience hasn't given much of an advantage.
"We're still trying to figure that out," Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan said. "One of the best ways to stop Denard Robinson is you can't let him get outside the pocket. As much as we just love rushing up the field as defensive ends, he's one of those guys where you have to press your rush a little bit more.
"You kind of have to not worry about sacking him but keeping him in the pocket. That's the biggest thing."
By doing that, teams risk leaving the middle of the field open if Michigan's interior linemen can neutralize an opposing team's tackles; then another running lane is open. If an opponent's linemen and linebackers can hold even ground or beat the Wolverines' interior line, that strategy forces Robinson to throw.
Not every team does that.
Last season, Northwestern moved Venric Mark to defense for a week as part of a package in which Mark essentially would spy Robinson. Mark, who usually plays offense, is one of the Wildcats' fastest players.
The rest of Northwestern's defense needed to keep its assignments, creating what linebacker David Nwabuisi called a "half-loop" around Robinson. It was Northwestern's way of running a contain package for the senior quarterback.
"No matter what you do, sometimes someone might slip or lose his contain and he might get out on the run, and that's what his job is to do," Nwabuisi said. "Our job is to make sure it doesn't happen again after it happens once."
One element on which most opponents agree when defending Robinson is the need to hit him. Make sure they take proper angles. Oh, and one other thing: Don't send only one guy converging on a tackle.
Robinson has absorbed a lot of hits in his career. Last season, he missed parts of games against Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois due to injury. The season before, he was hurt and missed snaps against Bowling Green, Iowa and Illinois, among others. So durability, even as Robinson played through an abdominal injury and staph infection last season, is a legitimate issue.
Despite that, it usually takes more than one tackler to bring down Robinson.
"If one man is coming, he already knows what he's going to do and makes a good cut or whatever he does," Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "It has to be a 'V' to get him down. It can't be one man getting him down.
"Two people coming together, just to break him down and slow him down. Once he's in the field, it's hard to hit him."
For others, the best way to neutralize Robinson is to try getting into his head. Make him second-guess some of the decisions he is going to make.
Part of the way to do that is to hit him. Another way is to continually call aggressive plays.
"I don't think you play passive at all," Ohio State linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "I think you cause havoc and put the pressure on him because he's such a good, elusive athlete and whatnot.
"You blitz him and try to get into his head."
While strategies differ, the team that has had the most success against Michigan and Robinson in the past two seasons is one of their biggest rivals, Michigan State, which succeeded by mixing fronts and secondary coverages.
In 2010, against then-coach Rich Rodriguez's zone-read, spread-option offense, the Spartans primarily used a four-man front, didn't blitz often and used a spy/contain strategy at times with the end on the wide side of the field. At times, they also stunted and had their ends rush inside the tackles.
In 2011, with Michigan employing a different offense, the Spartans mixed up fronts and blitz packages. However, most of the time they stuck with either a four-man rush or sent a linebacker on a blitz as well. It did not appear they used a spy, per se, but had some edge contain on certain plays.
In the past two seasons, Michigan State held Robinson to 128 yards rushing and 26-of-53 passing for 338 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
So how does an opposing team stop Robinson? The answer, as he enters his senior season, remains unclear. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who as Florida's coach recruited Robinson out of Deerfield Beach, Fla., said it would be similar to how teams defended Tim Tebow when Meyer had him with the Gators.
"Mixing secondary coverages," Meyer said. "Mixing up the front. Changing the looks for the quarterback."
There might be one person who knows how to stop Robinson -- the person who knows the quarterback the best: Robinson himself.
Even he isn't completely sure.
"I'm not a defense-minded guy. I think offense only," Robinson said. "I just read the defense, to be honest with you. But I don't know. You'd have to ask a defense-minded guy."
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss