Even with Michigan's Robinson questionable, 'U' not altering game plan
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's health status is somewhat in question after a tweaked nerve in his throwing arm forced him to exit early in the Wolverines' 23-9 loss to Nebraska last weekend.
But Gophers coach Jerry Kill isn't even considering the possibility of Robinson being unavailable when the two teams meet on Saturday in the 98th edition of the long-standing rivalry.
"There's no doubt. He's playing," Kill said on Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
Robinson, who Michigan coach Brady Hoke said "should be ready to go" by Saturday, has the dynamic speed and mobility to create major problems for the Gophers and their inconsistent run stopping defense.
The stinging memories of what Robinson and the Wolverines did to them last season in Ann Arbor have not faded. Suffering one of the most lopsided losses in program history has the tendency to do that.
Behind 38 first half points, Robinson fronted Michigan's crushing 58-0 defeat of the Gophers. The loss sent the Gophers' season further into a tailspin, which took several weeks to find even a glimmer of relief from.
It was an incident it is safe to assume that every player within the program has no desire to replicate. Even one year later, bringing up the disaster at Michigan is enough to cause players to take on a serious, downward tone when they recall what happened.
"Everybody who went to Michigan last year knows how we felt coming back," junior safety Brock Vereen said. "That's how we want to make them feel. That's a feeling you never want to experience again."
While the Gophers had never lost to that degree against Michigan, their yearly match-up with the Wolverines has routinely left behind a bitter aftertaste.
The Little Brown Jug trophy has taken an almost permanent residence in the maize and blue confines of Ann Arbor for more than four decades. The Wolverines have lost to the Gophers only three times in the last 43 years, and have not left Twin Cities without a win since 1977.
However, the Gophers' prolonged futility against Michigan hasn't stifled the surge of optimism the team has been infused with in the last several days.
A 44-28 blowout of Purdue last week rid the Gophers of the gloom that was lingering after a 0-3 start to conference play. Whether it was freshman quarterback Philip Nelson's 246 passing yards and three touchdowns in his second career start, or cornerback Michael Carter's interception return for a touchdown, the Gophers finally had a chance to revel in a critical win. Seven answered scoring drives and an impressively stout defensive effort combined to produce the team's most convincing Big Ten victory in six seasons.
They will need more than just positive vibes on Saturday. Embarrassing Purdue in a rout is one thing, but defeating Michigan one week later would require the Gophers to mount their most noteworthy upset in Kill's tenure.
The Wolverines have not been as dominant this season as in their 2011 Sugar Bowl champion campaign, though they remain a top threat in the lackluster Big Ten. But when Robinson went down in the second quarter at Nebraska, Michigan sputtered under the command of freshman backup Russell Bellomy, suffering a loss that could potentially cost them the Legends division title.
The Gophers may be catching Michigan at a good time. Hoke has insisted Robinson will play, but the Wolverines plan to give Bellomy and Devin Gardner a few snaps this week with the first team offense. It leaves open the idea that Robinson might not be at full strength come Saturday.
Regardless, Kill said his game plan would not change.
Slowing down the run has been the Gophers' primary defensive flaw as they have surrendered an average of 227.5 yards in four Big Ten games. That makes Robinson an enormous danger. He currently stands as the conference's leading rusher, sitting 100-yards away from crossing the 1,000-yard threshold for the third time in his career.
Robinson's uniqueness makes him difficult to prep for, especially when attempting to replicate his mobility with the scout team.
"I don't think you can. You try, but I don't think you can," Kill said. "That is the hard thing. You can't simulate somebody with that much speed and quickness. ... You better defensively do everything you can to try to keep the ball out of his hands and keep him boxed in. Don't give him any running lanes."
Nelson and the offense are also in for a trying task, up against the nation's top pass defense. Against Purdue, the offense ignited after three consecutive games of endless failed drives and only 13 points in each to show for it. Nelson didn't look like a freshman quarterback, going through a stretch of 12 straight completions - a period in which the Gophers built the bulk of their lead.
The Gophers can't expect to have the same level of offensive success against Michigan, but they have to be able to carry over a sampling of that burst if they hope keep themselves in the game.
Nelson was only a recruit when Gophers were trounced a year ago in the "Big House," but he has internalized the team's resentment and desire to give a reason to forget what happened.
"We've talked about how last year there were two embarrassing games, and that was Purdue and Michigan," Nelson said. "We made one of them right. We're ready to make the other one right this year."
• Wide receiver A.J. Barker's status is a looming question mark. He injured his right foot on Saturday after he was tripped up in the endzone by a defender on the second of his pair of touchdowns. Kill hasn't been reserved in expressing his apprehension about the availability of his top receiver, though on Tuesday he left open the possibility that Barker could be ready by Saturday.
"It's certainly a concern, but hopefully we can know more on Wednesday," Kill said. "He won't practice today, but maybe that extra day will help the opportunity ... "He's had such a good year, that you hope he's able to play."
• As of Tuesday, Kill isn't expecting junior left tackle Ed Olson to be healthy enough to play against Michigan. A right ankle injury has kept him out of the last three games.
• Senior linebacker Mike Rallis also did not practice Tuesday, sidelined with an ankle sprain. Rallis played with the injury against Purdue, but was not able to get much push off his foot, resulting in junior Brendan Beal getting the majority of snaps at middle linebacker.