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October 25, 2013
Feature: Great expectations
This story appears in our latest edition of Blue White Illustrated magazine.
To order a subscription, click here.
By Nate Bauer
Nearly a week after Allen Robinson's leaping 36-yard near-touchdown reception against Michigan, fans were still congratulating Penn State's star junior wideout for making "the catch."
The iconic moment in the Nittany Lions' 43-40 quadruple-overtime victory against the 18th-ranked Wolverines, Robinson's acrobatic catch, a stop, hop and gravity-defying ascent over cornerback Channing Stribling, certainly hasn't been forgotten, and it won't be anytime soon. For many of the 107,884 people who jammed into Beaver Stadium that night, the late-fourth-quarter reception is the play that will live on in their memories.
Robinson, however, won't be one of those people.
Rather than dwell on his triumphant moment, he was tormented after the game by his fumble on a reverse in overtime and two subsequent passes that he failed to catch in the end zone. In the aftermath of Penn State's rousing victory, those plays were likely forgotten by just about everyone, but not by Robinson and his father, Allen Sr.
"Christian threw me a fade pass that I think I could have come down with," Robinson said, referring to the play that followed Bill Belton's clutch fourth-and-1 conversion during the decisive fourth overtime period. Thrown to the right rear corner of the end zone, Christian Hackenberg's perfectly placed ball could have ended the game right there. But it didn't, and Robinson felt as though he were at fault, saying, "I think I could have made that catch."
Robinson wasn't alone in that belief. ESPN's color commentator, Matt Millen, likewise thought Robinson should have come down with the ball. "This is on Allen Robinson," Millen declared during the broadcast. "That should have been caught. That should have been six. If you're a great player, you make the great play."
Of course, Robinson doesn't just want to be great. He wants to be the best.
Two plays later, he was given another shot at winning the game. The pass found him in the middle of the end zone, but like the previous attempt, this one, too, fell incomplete. Michigan safety Jarrod Wilson was called for pass interference, however, and while the penalty set up Belton's winning touchdown one play later, the replay showed another exceedingly catchable ball simply slipping through the hands of one of the nation's top receivers.
While the Nittany Lions basked in their thrilling victory against the Wolverines, the plays that Robinson didn't make are the ones he continues to think about.
"They stick with me rather than the positive things," he said. "I'm just trying to always improve and always be the best. That pushes me the most, just wanting to be the best."
By nearly every conceivable standard, Robinson's name has been in the thick of that conversation this season. Through six games, he was leading the Nittany Lions in every receiving category, having amassed 43 catches for 705 yards (16.4 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.
Suspended for the first half of Penn State's season opener against Syracuse due to an unspecified violation of team rules, he immediately bounced back, hauling in a 25-yard reception, then a 51-yard touchdown on his first two plays of the year. He went on to surpass 100 yards in all but two of Penn State's first six games, including a 12-catch, 173-yard effort at Indiana.
Averaging 117.5 receiving yards through the first half of the season, Robinson was leading all wideouts in the Big Ten and checked in at No. 10 in the nation. His 7.2 receptions per game were also tops in the conference and 14th-best nationally, while his five touchdowns ranked second in the conference and were tied for No. 21 nationally. For his efforts, Robinson was named a second-team Mid-season All-American by both CBSsports.com and Phil Steele's College Football, and he was on Steele's first-team All-Big Ten squad. What's more, he was among the leading candidates at midseason for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top receiver.
In one respect, the accolades have been entirely unsurprising. After all, Robinson laid the groundwork for the 2013 season with a record-setting sophomore year in which he caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named the Big Ten Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year. But viewed another way, his success does seem rather extraordinary. That's because in earning all that recognition last year, he also earned a lot of extra defensive attention. Understanding his own desire to be better than great, Robinson said he relied on the advice of head coach Bill O'Brien, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, and plenty of teammates in order to outdo himself this past summer.
"I know that I had a pretty good year last year, but I'm just trying to get even better and compete at an even more elite level," he said. "That's really where my focus was in the off-season, just trying to be that elite player on the field.
"Last year, I was pretty good, I had a pretty decent year, but I tried to continue to push myself, and talk to Coach O'Brien and Coach Fitz about how I could take my game to a totally different level. That's what I really wanted to do."
Statistically, he has.
O'Brien said Robinson has repeatedly displayed a rare on-field intelligence that speaks to not only an off-season of hard work, but also a natural proclivity for improvement.
"He's a very smart guy. He's very football smart, and he's very smart off the field. He's just an intelligent guy," O'Brien said. "He really, really worked hard this off‑season to improve his individual skill set, and so he's another guy who [has] taken his game to the next level.
"He came back with better knowledge of the offense. He was stronger. He was faster, and he's shown that."
Heading into the Ohio State game, Robinson needs only 379 more receiving yards to break Bobby Engram's single-season Penn State record. In addition, he went into that game needing only 1,309 yards to break Engram's career record.
The career mark is certainly within reach, but only if Robinson decides to use his senior year. To this point, he has shied away from speaking publicly about his desire for a career in the National Football League.
"That's something that I can't really concern myself with too much right now," he said. "We're just trying to rally around each other and win some games. When the time comes, then I can focus on it and approach it, but I don't want to concern myself or distract myself too much from going out there on Saturdays and making plays with my team."
Although he's tried his best to avoid it, there's no way to tune out the NFL talk entirely. On a near-weekly basis, Robinson is asked by both local and national media about his preparation for the next level, the things he's done to get himself ready, and how often he thinks about what the future might bring after Penn State's 2013 season ends in November.
Through it all, Robinson has insisted that he is focused on the here and now. He is surrounded by a coaching staff that knows what it takes to succeed at the next level, and he has been making refinements to his game that will allow him to excel at any level, college or pro. Specifically, he's been improving his ability to make yards after the catch and turn routine receptions into big plays.
Robinson is well aware of the strides he still must make, and he's motivated by the notion that there are people who may harbor doubts about his potential.
"When people are critics of me, that definitely goes a long way with me," Robinson said. "There are a good number of them when you look around and you see some things, but I would say that's definitely something that helps me push my game to another level."
Of course, since "the catch," there hasn't been a lot of criticism of Robinson's play. What there has been is praise. Lots of it.
Heading for the doors of the Lasch Building on a recent afternoon during the Lions' off-week, Robinson was stopped mid-stride by a maintenance worker who was fixing a few lights in the players' lounge.
"Mr. Robinson," the man said, "can I shake your hand?"
Still very much an unassuming star, the receiver seemed surprised by the request but gladly complied. And as Robinson continued toward the exit, the maintenance man threw one more compliment in his direction - ready or not.
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