ANN ARBOR — In sports, it’s generally considered an obvious move to focus your defensive game plan against your opponent’s best offensive weapon.
For instance, Bob Melvin isn’t likely to tell his Oakland A’s pitching staff to walk Don Kelly in order to face Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, and no NFL defense has ever focused on stopping the Lions’ Titus Young while letting Calvin Johnson run free.
Apparently, that message never got to West Lafayette, Ind.
According to Michigan coach Brady Hoke and two of his offensive linemen, Purdue went into last Saturday’s game with the somewhat odd idea that the ticket to stopping the Wolverines was to key on … Fitzgerald Toussaint?
“Fitz had 170 yards against them last year, and it turned out to be a big difference in the game,” Hoke said Monday. “So they weren’t going to let Fitz do anything like that this year.
“They took Fitz away, and gave us Denard.”
To be fair to the Boilermakers, they did indeed shut down Toussaint. Although he scored two touchdowns, he gained just 19 yards on 17 carries.
That, however, came at the obvious cost.
The Wolverines happily shifted to what is always their Plan A to begin with — letting Denard Robinson run. He carried the ball 24 times for 235 yards in an easy 44-13 victory.
“Obviously, as an offensive line, we want to get our tailback going,” center Elliott Mealer said. “But Purdue really gave us Denard, and we’ll always be happy with that.
“We’ve got the luxury of having two playmakers back there, so we’ve always got options.”
Toussaint has struggled in the early going. He missed the Alabama game because of a suspension for a drunk-driving arrest, and in the last four games, he’s averaged 42 yards and just 3.2 per carry. At the same time, Robinson is averaging 135.2 yards at 7.5 per carry.
Michigan hasn’t gotten anything out of Toussaint’s backups either — Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith have combined for only 145 yards all season — so Hoke doesn’t think Toussaint’s the problem.
“There’s nothing to change at that position,” Hoke said. “Yes, we want to run the ball better, but Purdue wasn’t going to let him do that. We need to give him opportunities to make more plays.”
Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was very diplomatic, insisting that the tailbacks look bad only because they have to share a backfield with the best running quarterback in Big Ten history.
“Fitz, Vince and Rawls are all great backs,” Lewan said. “They are capable of doing most of the same things that Denard can do, with the exception of throwing the ball.
“If they were getting the ball on the plays that Denard was running, they would have gotten the same results.”
Of course, Robinson specializes in the type of freelancing that has never seen a playbook. If there’s a hole, he gives the ball to the tailback. If not, well, he does whatever seems to work at the time.
That was enough Saturday to move him past Antwaan Randle El and into first place for career rushing yards by a quarterback.
Robinson’s unique style makes things interesting for the offensive linemen.
“We start every play blocking for the tailback,” Mealer said. “After that, well, we never know where Denard might go. We just adapt as fast as we can.