FIU’s T.Y. Hilton comes into Saturday’s game against UCF riding high following a spectacular 201-yard, two-touchdown performance and is currently enjoying some initial Heisman hype.
Forgive UCF standout cornerback Josh Robinson if he’s going through a bit of a been-there, done-that feeling right now. Let the record show that Robinson has faced some of the nation’s top wide outs before and has usually come out for the better.
For proof of how Robinson, a 5-foot-10, 192-pound junior, has fared against elite receivers you have to look no further than last December. Facing Georgia superstar A.J. Green, Robinson limited the future No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft to just 77 receiving yards and no touchdowns. And in the Conference USA Championship Game, Robinson smothered SMU’s Aldrick Robinson – he of 1,301 receiving yards and 14 TDs last season – to a measly three catches in UCF’s 17-7 victory.
Robinson enters Saturday’s 6 p.m. game against FIU with a healthy respect for Hilton, but also with the confidence that he’s built in the past. The junior cornerback has followed up a solid sophomore season with a dazzling start to this season, and he goes into Saturday anxious to face off against one of the nation’s best receivers once again.
“The coaches helped me with my game so that I can get comfortable back there and defend anybody,” Robinson said of his past success against the likes of Green and Aldrick Robinson. “It all starts with confidence. You have to have confidence for a game like this and facing a wide receiver like T.Y. … My brother went to FIU and he used to always tell me about (Hilton), so I’ve heard the name for a while now. Now, we’ll finally get to meet. He’s a great player, he makes those big plays and he’s a great receiver. We’ll do our best to contain him and stop him.”
The game will also take on a special meaning for Robinson, a Sunrise native who will be enjoying a homecoming of sorts. He said getting a chance to play near his home again is like a dream come true for him. As of Wednesday he said as many as 30 family and friends were planning to attend the game, and he’s spent the past few days scrambling for tickets.
“Definitely this one means a little more,” said Robinson, who was considered a four-star recruit by Rivals.com when coming out of Plantation High School. “A bunch of people that I know will be at the game and some guys I know will be playing against us. So that just spices it up even more.”
The Robinson-Hilton matchup should provide plenty of spice in the matchup between UCF (2-0) and FIU (2-0). The Knights routed Boston College 30-3 last Saturday night, while FIU had its biggest win in school history last Friday, beating Louisville 24-17.
Not surprisingly, both players were big stars in their teams’ big victories. Robinson had four tackles and a spectacular diving pass break-up that led to a tipped ball and an interception by middle linebacker Josh Linam. Robinson’s play allowed UCF to extend its streak of games with an interception to nine and its other streak of 12 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown.
Hilton, a 5-foot-10, 183-pound senior from Miami, was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year last season. Last Friday against Louisville, he accounted for 283 all-purpose yards. Also a dangerous returner, he is the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards with 6,153 and has four kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career.
A first-team All-C-USA performer a year ago, Robinson worked hard over the summer to become a more complete cornerback. He led all freshmen in interceptions (six) two years ago, but he grew frustrated at times last season when quarterbacks mostly ignored throwing to his side because of his blanket coverage. And he was at his best in the two biggest games of the season: seven tackles, an interception and two breakups against Aldrick Robinson and SMU in the C-USA title game and four tackles and a pass breakup versus Green and Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
UCF head coach George O’Leary has tried to impress upon Robinson the need to play at a high level all of the time so that he can reach his full potential. And for now, he feels that Robinson is playing his best football at UCF.
“He’s really matured. I think he’s playing smarter as far as his coverage is concerned,” O’Leary said. “He doesn’t get many opportunities because teams are usually going over the middle or to the boundary. I look at a good corner when a team lines up on the hash, calls a (slant pass) and they’re afraid to throw it because of the cover corner. But Josh has really improved. He takes some chances where you go `whoa.’ But he has great closing speed and great transition speed and we’re trying to do more things with him.”
Robinson’s ability to take away half of the field with his coverage skills is a big reason why UCF leads the nation in fewest points allowed per game (1.5). So far, he has four tackles, two pass breakups and an interception against Charleston Southern that he returned 32 yards for a touchdown.
“I don’t want to just cover the deep routes or the 12-yarders. I’m trying to take away those five-yard plays and three-yard routes too. I just want to improve my game all the way around.”
Standout UCF safety Kemal Ishmael, a starter since his freshman season like Robinson, said having experience against some of the top receivers in the country in the past will help them when facing Hilton on Saturday.
“In the secondary, we’re experienced and know what to expect and what they will and won’t do,” said Ishmael, who has six tackles in two games. “Sometimes you have to press up on those receivers and sometimes you have to lay off a little bit. Having Josh, (cornerback) A.J. Bouye and (safety) Clayton Geathers all playing together, it just helps up. We’ve been against A.J. Green and the receiver from SMU (Aldrick Robinson), he was just like Hilton being quick and fast. So having that experience before, that helps us out a lot.”
Facing an elite receiver would usually be enough to excite the fiery Robinson, but the fact that he’ll be playing before family and friends makes the night even more important. He is still close friends with FIU starting tailback Jeremiah Harden, and Robinson knows the consequences will be harsh if the Knights don’t win this game.
“(Most of us have) never played a game back home, so everyone is excited. And with them being an exciting team trying to get into the Top 25 just like us, that just makes it an even more exciting game,” Robinson said. “Being around those guys growing up and now getting an opportunity to play them, it’s just a good opportunity. If you lose you know that will be the talk of the town when you go back. I’m just excited about playing them down there.”