Stopping Robinson the No. 1 priority for Notre Dame


Stopping Robinson the No. 1 priority for Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame is off to its best start in years, and could find itself ranked among the top 10 teams in the country with a win on Saturday. Problem is, Notre Dame hasn't beat Michigan in the last three years. And more specifically, they haven't beat Denard Robinson.

Robinson's touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left in last year's contest was one of the defining moments of last year's college football season. It was the culmination of one of the wildest quarters of college football in recent memory, and most of it was the product of Robinson's masterful performance.

Notre Dame led 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter but lost the lead with just over a minute remaining. With 30 seconds left, the Irish got the lead back. And then with two seconds left, they lost it.

"I was really, really positive that was the game," running back Cierre Wood said. "But in any game you cant be too sure about anything, you cant take your foot off the gas pedal. Thats what I feel we did, the results were what they were.

"This year, theres gonna be a different outcome."

It's easy to forget just how well Notre Dame played against Michigan for the first three quarters last year. Eight of Michigan's first nine drives ended with a punt or interception, and Robinson was contained, only leading the Wolverines to five first downs on those drives.

But the overall picture of Robinson vs. Notre Dame isn't pretty: He's passed for 562 yards and rushed for 366 in two games -- 928 total yards of offense.

"He can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his feet, and he's a fast little guy back there," defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "I feel like if we contain him, and just kinda get him out of his comfort zone, I think we'll be all right."

Robinson's already been muted once this year, but that was by Alabama's incomparable defense. His elusiveness creates plenty of problems, and while he's prone to making a few bad decisions, against Notre Dame last year his scramble-and-heave plays wound up helping more than hurting Michigan's chances.

"He can extend plays, he's a great player," safety Matthias Farley, who will make his first career start Saturday, said. "He's obviously extremely fast, good arm. You can't fall asleepyou gotta play to the whistle the whole time or he'll get you."

But when Robinson's explosiveness is taken out of the equation, he's beatable. That's what Notre Dame did for 45 minutes last year, and that's what they're aiming to do for 60 minutes this year.

"We have to find a way to limit bigchunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks," coach Brian Kelly said."It's about our defense not giving up those big-chunk plays.We gave them up in the running game in year one and we gave them up in the passing game in year two. We have to eliminate and control those big plays that are out there.If we do that, we feel pretty good."

Notre Dame's done well handling a variety of atmospheres in its first three games, from playing overseas against Navy to the home opener against Purdue to a hostile atmosphere at Michigan State. Saturday will have yet another different feel, with the game starting at night and having plenty of hype.

"Everybody and their dog are coming to this game," Lewis-Moore said. "It's going to be an exciting atmosphere, but you can't really get too lost in it and everything.

"It's exciting, but at the same time we gotta focus in. Michigan's had our number the past three years. This is a stepping stone for us and it's a great challenge ahead of us."

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The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”