Michigan needs to play up their strengths, not their weaknesses

Photo via the 2011 Purdue photo set.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges met with the media yesterday to discuss what he's been up to since Michigan's loss to Notre Dame on September 22nd. [presser transcript via Mgoblog]
Offense struggling away from home … what do you make of it?
“I’m never sure exactly what to make of it. All I know is to look at the raw data. We’re turning the ball over too much. What’s our rushing statistics on the road. How’s the play-calling? I looked at that and what I did over the last two weeks is I took every game we played on the road and went over every tape and looked at how I went about calling the offense on the road as opposed to how I went about calling the offense and took every single play we ran and evaluated.

Play-calling is an interesting deal because when you look at a play, you look at the play -- is it over-defended or under-executed? You’ve got really three categories. You’ve got a play that’s a potentially successful scenario where it should really work because all the pieces are in place, and then you have a play that has a chance to be a successful play, but it’s going to require a little more. Then you have a play where you’re working uphill on. The advantage is more for the defense. So when you look at your playcalling, you have to go through all those things, you have kind of a play 1, play 2, play 3, and look at all those situations, how you did on the road, how you did in [home] games.

And as a play-caller, believe me, as hard as the fans are on me, I’m about eight times harder on myself. … When we meet with the players we’ll go over even the plays that I didn’t call well so that -- you gotta understand that in football, if you’re honest with yourself and you’re honest with your team ... you have to show them, ‘Okay, this is where I put you in a bad situation,’ so they trust you that you’re not always blaming them for the mistakes. It’s our responsibility to get them to do what we want. Even when there’s errors, it’s still our responsibility. You have to kind of take that approach, although people, when things aren’t going well, want to point to one thing all the time. It’s very seldom one thing. It’s generally a bunch of things, and I think that’s probably what happened last week.”
After the Notre Dame game, Denard took a lot of the heat for his performance – maybe some of it was warranted. But I don't think it's all on him, nor should he have apologized publicly after the game. But now that the Irish loss is almost 2 weeks old, and we've all moved on, to hear Borges come out and say these comments is telling of where much the blame really lies for the offensive woes we've seen on the road on a number of occasions.

I remember vividly the feeling of the loss at Michigan State last year. You saw a lot of guys on both sides of the ball come out and say they should have played better, make less mistakes. That feeling was realized again against Notre Dame two weeks ago. To me, it felt like Michigan played a different sort of offense then what they usually play. They got away from what they're good at and tried to be good at the things they're bad at. Notre Dame's defensive coordinator could not have been happier with Michigan's offensive play-calling. Maybe it had something to do with the road atmosphere, Spartan Stadium and Notre Dame stadium are not easy venues to play in, and both of their defenses played very well...but there was something more.

Michigan has a good running back in Fitzgerald Toussaint. They have good receivers. They have an emerging freshman tight end who has shown he can compete. Against Notre Dame, Michigan's coaches challenged their offensive line at halftime, and they responded. Denard Robinson is never going to be a great passer. We know that. Al Borges must let Denard be Denard. I don't mean just let him run all around the field on every play, but let him off the hook when the game warrants it. Let him shine at what he does best. And that is getting into space and letting plays evolve around him. Not dropping back into the pocket where he will get rushed and make poor decisions.

I think Denard is his own biggest critic, and when he makes mistakes he feels them. Work his confidence by putting him in manageable scenarios where he can improve his self-doubt. Build it from there.

I'm not putting all the blame on Borges here. It's a combination of a lot of things. If you look at the Vincent Smith tailback pass against Notre Dame that was intercepted, if he throws the ball with a little more touch...that's a touchdown. The play was there, and Dileo was wide open. But Smith was rushed and made a bad throw. I don't really have a problem with that play call, in theory, but the timing of the call is what made it so controversial.

And that's maybe the bigger issue here – risk versus reward. Is it worth letting your tailback make a throw like that into coverage when its likely he's going to be rushed? Of course not. Is it worth having Denard make downfield throws from the pocket into zone coverage when we know that's his biggest weakness? Not when he can do much more damage with his feet or rolling out on play-action...or handing the ball off.

It's time for Michigan's offense to play to their strengths instead of trying to play up their weaknesses – at home and on the road. That's really the essence of what I think it will take to get back to playing efficient football, no matter where Michigan is.