If there's one thing that's good about losing a single game, it's that it produces a lot of drama. And drama breeds more writing material.
Recently there's been a lot of criticism levied against Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges for sticking with a seemingly ineffective game plan regarding Michigan's 41-14 loss to No. 2-ranked Alabama.
This is largely an argument in his defense.
In Borges's Tuesday press conference--which you can watch here--the first question he was asked was whether or not he would go back and change his game plan. Borges's answer:
Very little would I change. Very little. Almost none. That’s probably hard to grasp because of the way we executed. The game plan didn’t look very effective, but the whole thing was geared to if they loaded the box up, we were going to throw the ball, and if they left the box light, we were going to run it. We ran the ball into a light box twelve times and had +4 runs three times out of the twelve. And we hit two out of ten shots down the field. So, the other alternative is to +1 run with the quarterback. We did some of that, too, but they weren’t going to let you do that. As much as you wanted to give that a shot, that wasn’t going to happen. No one’s done that to them. Look at the numbers in the past. No one’s done that to them.
The question is telling. There seems to be this notion that if we only ran Denard twenty or thirty times, we would have won the game or somehow at least have kept it close.
We can see this criticism best summed up by the post-game reaction by Brian Cook at mgoblog:
At no point did Al Borges deploy the EMP weapon he must have spent the offseason perfecting in lieu of figuring out what Denard Robinson is good at.
...At halftime I bellowed "THAT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT RUNNING DENAAAAARD" at the television.
Any hopes you may be harboring that this will all work itself out and Denard's legs will be the primary engine of the offense are looking pretty sickly at the moment. At least we've been here before, and Borges has retreated to plot anew. Usually he comes back with "hey, this guy can run."
The only rationale I can think of that makes any sense is that Borges believed flat-out that Michigan could not run at all and wanted an offense predicated on that.
If Robinson has 30 carries against Air Force I'll again descend into the Walter White [of AMC's Breaking Bad] laugh.
The criticism seems to be based on the precepts that 1) Denard Robinson is the most explosive player in Michigan's offense, 2) Al Borges must run Denard in order to win games, and 3) putting Denard in a spread offense would result in more success. The third one really comes through here:
Would have been nice to see what Robinson could have become in an offense that catered to—or even bothered to use—his primary skill.
I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding to the state of our team by some of our fans. Although it was continually lost on Herbstreit and Musberger during the broadcast, the decision by Al Borges to run Denard infrequently was borne more out of necessity than preference.
Denard may very well run the ball twenty times in other games. It wasn't an option against Alabama, as Borges points out:
We’ll play that game by game, but I would not have run Denard Robinson any more than we ran him on Saturday. Absolutely not. No, I know a lot of people think that, but no way. That wasn’t going to happen. But in certain games you’ll run the ball. I mean, it’s just like last year. You’ll see certain games he’ll carry it 25 times. You’ll see other games he’ll carry it 10 to 15 times. You can run him 20 times every game, you'll get nothing left of him by the end of the season, particularly when you’re playing opponents like [Alabama]. That’s already been proven.
In the Alabama game they weren’t going to let you run. Look at their numbers, guys. They’ve never allowed a quarterback to run the football. Not with any significance. They play a front, they play a defense that forces the quarterback to throw the ball. You can run here and there, but if you think you’re going out of there for 150 yards, it’s not going to happen all the time. But in other games -- there will be certain games you’ll see him run a lot more.
What needs to be understood is two things. The first is that the last thing you want is to injure your starting quarterback in the first game of the season when you have 11 more games to play. History says that running Denard twenty to thirty times does not necessarily guarantee success (see 2010 Ohio State, Mississippi State, etc.), and more often than not it means that Denard will not finish the game (see 2010 Bowling Green, Illinois).
Even in an offense that seemingly suited Denard’s skills, there was a greater fear that he’d be injured out of the game instead of throwing an incomplete pass. I’d rather have the latter.
The second thing that needs to be understood was obvious to anyone who watched the game—or at least, it should be obvious to anyone who watched the game: Alabama was not going to let Denard run.
They knew coming in that he was Michigan’s most explosive player and they would be watching him at all times. Given Saban’s aggressive defense, the way that Alabama likely intended to stop Denard Robinson was by knocking his lights out.
So, not only is it imprudent to run Denard thirty times when that’s exactly what the opposing defense is looking for, it’s also exhibits a lack of understanding the opponent’s primary strength in defending the run. It’s not like we were playing Connecticut.
Borges knew that going in. Contrary to the narrative ESPN was pushing in an attempt to hype up the game, Denard was not an "X-Factor" for which Saban's defense would have no answer. And Borges is right: if you look at the stats, dual threat quarterbacks had virtually no success running the ball against Alabama.
Here are a few examples: (links to box scores included)
In Alabama's 2011 regular game against Ole Miss, dual-threat quarterback Randall Mackey had 12 carries for 6 yards.
In Alabama's 2011 regular season game against LSU, dual-threat quarterback Jordan Jefferson had 11 carries for 43 yards.
In the 2012 BCS national championship game, Jordan Jefferson had 14 carries for 15 yards.
Those are two SEC quarterbacks who each didn't manage 100 yards. History does not support the notion that Denard Robinson would have fared any better against the Crimson Tide.
So what was the alternative?
Michigan blog Touch the Banner summed up Borges's challenge nicely:
Michigan wasn't going to be able to run the ball in this game. I predicted that Michigan would rush for fewer than 100 yards; the final tally was 69, despite having one of the most electrifying players in the country at quarterback. Yes, Denard Robinson probably could have run the ball more, especially before he got dinged up. Would it have made much of a difference? Probably not. Where Robinson really could have made a difference was in the passing game.
Exactly. The passing game. If Alabama had any type of weakness (and that's stretching the term a bit), it would be in their inexperienced secondary. Borges's plan to throw the ball when they stacked the box is exactly what you'd want to do to put pressure on those defensive backs. In fact, that's really the only thing you can do.
Maize n Brew's Anthony Mammel took a sort of critical approach with this:
What in the world was Michigan running the ball on first and second down for? Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls combined for 19 carries and 42 yards! To any other coordinator this means the running game should only be used just enough to keep a defense honest, especially when Alabama is bringing back side edge blitzes like it's the last game they'll ever play. The opportunity for Robinson to take advantage was clear, yet Borges just had to keep on truckin'. Don't do this against Michigan State again.
And later, in the comments:
He [Borges] was calling running plays that were averaging no more than two yards the entire game while Alabama continued to bring the heat. No excuse for that, especially late in the game when we needed points in a hurry.
This is kind of missing the point. One, Michigan's receivers didn't catch all the deep balls thrown their way, which would have forced Alabama to adjust and likely would have changed the entire landscape of the game. Second, Borges had to take some of the pressure off Denard's passing woes by running the ball (with a zone read) when the box was light (i.e. dropped back into coverage).
On many of those reads, Denard chose not to keep the ball. While some believe that Denard keeping the ball would have meant a greater chance of success, the only difference that I think would have happened would be that we'd be now trading sentiments of "Get well soon, Denard" and talking about the season going forward with Russell Bellomy or Devin Gardner as our quarterback.
Yes, Michigan needed points in a hurry, but they weren't making gains on the ground or in the air. In fact, the only two opportunities Michigan had to score came off two deep balls thrown that were actually caught (one by Jeremy Gallon which put Michigan at the one-yard line, and the other by Devin Gardner for a touchdown). Michigan's running game played virtually no part in getting them down the field, and what sucks is that they couldn't even if they wanted to.
Adding Denard Robinson's legs to the mix would have been worse for Michigan than for Alabama. There were a lot of reasons why Michigan lost this game, not the least of which is that Alabama is really, really good. But the game wasn't lost because Al Borges made the correct decision to attack Alabama where they were "weakest" (again, stretching the term) and that was against their secondary.
The biggest thing that we have to understand from this game is that Michigan's offense is, as Borges notes in the press conference, still a work in progress. While Denard is not Borges's prototypical passer, Borges is still working with him, and he is getting better. Against teams that aren't the defending national champions, we should see a noticeable difference.
The other thing that shocks me is how people forget we are still in the process of transitioning to a new offensive system (though, again, utilizing what we have, making decisions based on the situation at hand) and are still recovering from the worst period in Michigan football history. Remember that Michigan has lost worse games than to No. 2-ranked Alabama. I mean, it's like the No. 8 ranking warped everyone's minds and made them think Michigan was somehow a dark horse contender for the national title. No, we still have a long way to go.
"It's the first game, tough opponent," Borges said. "Our kids are resilient, and we've got some good leaders on this team. It's a tough way to start -- for all of us, for the coaches, for the players -- but you've got 11 games. If I'm not mistaken, Oregon played LSU last year. Wasn't it the same game [as ours, Cowboys Classic]? What was the score of that game? It wasn't even close. How did Oregon do ... after the game? I think they won 11 games. So, it's not [lost]. You don't chuck it all. You've got to be resilient. You've got to get back to the basics."