It began in the offseason, Husker coaches gathering to bounce ideas off each other, tackling a question that has no sure answer when the problem is so slippery.
What do you do to minimize this guy? Not stop, understand. Minimize.
"This guy" is Denard Robinson. Known as Shoelace to his chums. Known as trouble to foes.
So coaches bounced around their ideas, and some of them sure as heck sounded pretty good on a pleasant day several months before those ideas meet 4.3-second speed.
“Everybody has ideas on how to stop this guy, and everything looks good on paper,” said Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. “But what happens between those lines, it’s a lot more difficult live and in person than on paper.”
Kaczenski says he’d “have to think real hard” to find players he's faced as a coach as dynamic as the Michigan quarterback.
“Obviously, Braxton (Miller) a couple weeks ago. That guy, he’s a freak. … But, yeah, (Robinson’s) got to be up there.”
That’s why Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio — even with a 3-1 record against Robinson — said after the game last week: “I'm glad he's gone, you know? He's tough to defend."
Asked this week about that very challenge of defending Robinson, Husker linebackers coach Ross Els cracked back: “Suggestions?”
“He’s got that agility, which is scary,” Els said. “Every play looks like a punt return with him. They want to spread him out, just like Braxton, and find a crease. Whether you have a guy in that gap or not, if we make that crease big enough, we’re probably going to miss, and that’s the scary part of it.”
Anybody who follows college football closely has seen the highlights Robinson can produce with his feet. He’s already rushed for 900 yards this season, averaging 7.4 yards every time he carries the ball.
Minimal space is all he needs to cause the band to break into “The Victors.”
"You can't spend all of your time worrying about Denard Robinson," said Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis. "But at the end of the day, he is 68.2 percent of their total offense."
And so Husker coaches look for clues here, there and everywhere.
Maybe there’s something useful in that Sugar Bowl tape from last season. What did Virginia Tech do against him? How about Michigan State? Certainly the film screen shows footage of that Notre Dame game from just a month ago.
That’s when the Irish picked off Robinson four times.
As dynamic as Robinson is as a runner, he’s had his struggles passing the ball.
He's completed just 53.5 percent of his attempts, which is almost 14 percent lower than the completion percentage of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. And Robinson has thrown nine interceptions, five more than Martinez.
So how does Nebraska cause him to make those kind of mistakes Saturday night when the two teams collide in a game that very well could decide the Legends Division winner?
“If we can make him feel uncomfortable, maybe put some pressure on him a little bit so he can’t set his feet and throw the ball, be physical up front so he doesn’t have those seams, those are kind of the main things,” Els said.
“But you've just got to be patient with this kid. You can’t just completely go all-out every single play, because if you do, they find one type of combination block where you’re short a gap, they’ll find it and hit it. So we need to mix things up on him.”
Robinson performed well in Michigan’s 45-17 dismantling of the Huskers last year, piling up 263 yards.
The Husker defense was not as bad in that game as the score suggests, however.
Nebraska was taken to the cleaners as much by a special-teams meltdown and an inability to sustain drives (only 11 first downs) as much as anything that day.
While giving up some critical long pass plays, the Nebraska defense held Robinson to 83 yards rushing on 23 carries — a 3.6-yard average.
A coach could live with that. Of course, it helped that then-Husker linebacker Lavonte David, now starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, seemed to be wherever Robinson was, piling up 17 tackles.
David is gone, but Nebraska has a new voice in the program that could be beneficial on this occasion.
It belongs to Kaczenski.
The first-year Husker assistant’s past defensive lines at Iowa more than held their own against Robinson. The Hawkeyes were 3-0 against Robinson while Kaczenski coached there.
Even with that success, Kaczenski downplays the notion that his say is any greater this week than others.
“It’s always a democracy in our room,” he said. “Everybody has ideas. It comes down to putting our kids in the best position to be successful, not giving up the big plays and giving them things that they can execute and play fast. You gotta play fast against these guys. You just can’t have your guys thinking a lot up front, in the second level and in the secondary.”
It's the only way to defend speed.
But Robinson isn’t just a fast runner. He's a determined one too.
His value is perhaps most obvious on third down, where the Wolverines have converted a league-best 49.8 percent.
Even if a play breaks down, Robinson’s feet might move the chains.
"You can tell he really wants it," said junior Husker defensive end Jason Ankrah. "It could be third-and-5, and somebody's open, but he knows he can get the first down with his feet — he's going to go with his feet. The people who really dig down and run are the people who want to get the first down."
That’s a concern to Husker fans who still haven’t shaken the images of Ohio State’s Miller running wild against the Nebraska defense, racking up 186 rushing yards.
But Els felt the Huskers took an encouraging step last week, defending the spread well, holding Northwestern’s mobile quarterback Kain Colter to just 35 yards on 14 carries.
Minus a breakdown on an 80-yard run by Venric Mark, the Huskers held the Wildcats to just 100 yards rushing.
“Kain Colter did some (damage) to us last year and then wasn’t able to do it. So we’re glad the way we played Kain,” Els said. “But this is another great running quarterback we have to find a way to stop.”
However it goes, it's likely Husker defensive coaches will feel in the postgame much like Dantonio did.
Perhaps saying a respectful goodbye to Robinson. But don't expect tears.