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Monday Morning Quarterback Faults Borges More Than Denard

October 17th, 2011 by Chris

Having not yet read any of the post-game reaction to Saturday’s 28-14 loss to Michigan State, I’m guessing that there is a lot of frustration among the masses about how the Wolverines played.  I’m also guessing that a lot of people are blaming Denard Robinson for the loss because of his performance.

While going 9-of-24 for 123 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and 18 carries for 42 yards and a touchdown are not great stats and are not typical of his usual performance, Denard is not completely to blame.  NO ONE should be questioning whether or not he should still be the quarterback, and NO ONE should be clamoring for a two-QB system along with Devin Gardner.  I’ll discuss why below.

Despite being put in poor positions, the Michigan defense held strong most of the game (photo by the Detroit Free Press)

But before I get to that, I do want to give defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and the Michigan defense some credit for the game they played.  The Wolverine defense played well for all four quarters of this game.

After getting gashed with the run on MSU’s first drive of the game, Mattison adjusted immediately to stop the run using the 4-6 Defense, also known as the Bear Defense. It’s the best defense for stopping the run because it eliminates the ability for the offensive line to make double teams on defensive linemen, leaving the secondary in either straight man-to-man (Cover 0), Man-Free (Cover 1), or Cover 3 (Zone).  The 4-6 was an excellent choice as the defense held MSU scoreless for the rest of the first half.

In the second half, Michigan continued to mix in the 4-6 depending on the down and distance.  The Michigan D was put in a bad position on MSU’s first drive after Matt Wile’s poor kickoff left MSU starting at its own 46-yard line.  The other drive on which it gave up a touchdown was later in the third quarter and that was not because of MSU’s rushing game.  Again, the defense was put in a bad position by the Michigan offense as MSU started at its own 39 and completed three 10-to-15-yard passes. All of this after Michigan recovered a fumble in State territory but could only go backwards on a three-and-out series.

The last seven points were an interception returned for a touchdown by the MSU defense.  Unlike last year, when the defense was often the reason for Michigan’s losses, Saturday’s game was the opposite.  It clearly played well all game.  It’s hard for a ‘bend but don’t break’ defense like Michigan’s to basically start at midfield on every drive and expect it not to give up some points.

On to Michigan’s QB situation.  I will admit that Denard Robinson did not have a great day on Saturday.  He missed quite a few open receivers that he should not have missed.  He also forced passes into double coverage a few times and continued to throw off his back foot instead of stepping into his throws.

On called running plays, he did his thing like normal, but the MSU defensive front really limited his ability to break any big runs because, simply put, it was way better than the Michigan offensive line.  MSU Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi essentially used the same game plan that he used last year to contain Denard: seven-to-eight players in the box, an upfield rush by the defensive ends to keep Denard and the running backs between the tackles, and pressure up the middle with the linebackers.  MSU held Michigan to a TOTAL of 82 rushing yards and forced Denard to throw.  We saw how that turned out.

Denard got sacked on fourth-and-inches, effectively ending Michigan's chances of winning the game. While he didn't play well, he needs to be put in better situations (photo by the Detroit News)

Despite this, I disagree with those that say Denard’s play was the reason for Michigan’s loss.  Michigan Offensive Coordinator Al Borges failed to adjust to MSU’s defense the entire game and I submit that Borges’ play-calling is more to blame for Michigan’s offensive woes.  Let’s be clear: putting in Devin Gardner for some kind of “gadget” play is not a coaching adjustment.  That kind of call is good for keeping the defense honest when it is over-pursuing the run or just isn’t very disciplined, but when your team is struggling to get things going, “tricking” them is not going to lead to consistent scoring.

Instead, what Borges should have been calling was more quick passing plays to the receivers (curls, outs, hitches) and to the running backs out of the backfield, draws, and SCREENS.  I don’t remember one single screen play to the running backs in the entire game.  These are EASY passes that even Denard can hit with regularity and gets the ball out of his hands before he gets too much pressure.

The answer to beating aggressive pressure by the defense, especially up the middle as MSU did, is not “let’s throw the ball over their heads.” It’s to use screens, draws, throwing to the backs out of the backfield, and a quick, methodical passing game to the places where the blitz was coming from.  Why?  Because the linebackers are responsible for covering the backs and for the short zones in the flats and in the middle of the field.  If they are blitzing the quarterback, who is covering these areas??  NO ONE!  Hit a couple screens to the running back for some big gains and that defensive pressure will stop real quick!  These are all things Denard can do with enough practice and they are something that Borges will HAVE to get into the playbook if Michigan wants to win games against better competition the rest of the season.

The other thing that I disagree with Borges doing was calling specific plays for Gardner and this increasing role for Gardner in the offense that we seem to be witnessing.  Gardner is certainly a talented player who can help the offense and I do think that he should get some live game snaps for if/when Denard gets hurt.  While he may be a better passer than Denard, he does not give the Michigan offense a better chance to score, as long as Borges is calling the right kinds of plays for his quarterback.

In the MSU game, Gardner got more playing time than in any game yet this year.  In fact, he has progressively gotten more snaps in every game as the season has moved along.  But Borges has no business using Gardner on first down or on a 2nd-and-10, especially when Michigan is losing.  He should be using him on 2nd-and-short or maybe even 3rd-and-short to give the defense something extra to think about.

Devin Gardner will be a good QB, but now is not the time to give up on Denard (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

Also, in case Borges, or anyone reading this article, thinks that Michigan should go to a two-QB system: stop it.  Denard is not the type of quarterback who can be ushered in and out of the game.  He is a rhythm QB who is best when he is out on the field on every play and allowed to create.  Do we really want to have a QB with a confidence problem?  Would it really serve the Michigan offense well to have our QB always looking over his shoulder for the coach to yank him when he makes a mistake?  No.

Denard is going to make mistakes when Borges puts him in an uncomfortable position by calling bad plays.  The last thing we want is our Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback afraid to make something happen because he is worried about being pulled from the game.  That may even lead to more bad plays.

Two-QB systems rarely work.  To make it happen, you have to have a good coach who understands the complexities of playing the QB position.  Steve Spurrier did this successfully a couple times while head coach at Florida.  But, for the most part, a two-QB system just leads to more inconsistent play by both QBs who are trying to do it.  Al Borges certainly is not the coach to do this.  He should be more worried about calling the right plays for his offense and for his QB.

When you know your offensive line is not as good as the defensive front, and when you know your QB struggles to throw the ball downfield, especially under pressure, why continue to force these plays that aren’t working?  The sign of a good offensive coordinator is someone who recognizes what the defense is doing and adjusts to it, while at the same time doing things that his personnel is capable of.

In truth, Denard is probably not the exact fit for Borges’ style of offense, but that is who he has, at least for the rest of this year and next.  He is one of the most explosive players in all of college football.  If you can’t find a way to win games with him, then you shouldn’t be an offensive coordinator.  The answer is not to take him out the game; it’s to call better plays.

And for those who are calling for Devin Gardner to take over as the starting QB: don’t forget how excited you were to have a Heisman Trophy talent like Denard Robinson in the Michigan backfield.  He hasn’t gotten any worse.  He just needs someone to call better plays for him when the defense takes away the zone-read.  Up to this point, we haven’t yet seen that out of Borges.


Chris is a former Division 1 quarterback and an avid Michigan fan