For Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, football is a game of possibility. It’s surveying a field or scribbling plays on a napkin, devising ways to get two top-five NFL draft picks in the same backfield, getting playmakers in open space or to get your playmaker the ball even if he’s injured. In his mind, there are possibilities.
“My creative juices are flowing all the time,” Borges said. “Depending on the game, I’m considered creative or idiotic. But they’re always flowing.”
Saturday was creative. Junior Devin Gardner played most of the game at quarterback against Iowa, as he has for three weeks now after senior quarterback Denard Robinson injured his elbow against Nebraska. Robinson, the explosive playmaker, often lined up in the backfield.
Robinson hasn’t thrown a pass since Michigan’s game against Nebraska on Oct. 27, but the possibilities are still abounding. There were new formations and handoff options and a triple reverse: loads of new possibilities — some realized and some theoretical — for which Ohio State must prepare.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Borges had already created nine plays featuring Robinson as a back before he was injured. After Robinson’s injury, Borges drew up six more. Borges said he devised some of the plays from scratch, and others he tweaked from existing offenses.
“When you coordinate an offense for it seems like 100 years, you run a lot of plays at one time or another,” Borges said. “So consequently, there’s a lot of copy-cats and thievery. I’ve had plays stolen from me, and I’ve stolen plays from other guys then tweaked plays to make them hopefully fit with what you’re doing.”
Michigan’s new offensive look, though exotic, isn’t a novel concept in college football. Clemson featured plenty of inverted wishbone — the same formation Michigan uses for its three-back look. The Green Bay Packers featured the same look two years ago in the playoffs. Then, it was used to give a power-offense look, not what Michigan seeks to create with its full-house set.
Louisiana-Monroe used an even more unconventional offense for one series against Baylor earlier this year, using two quarterbacks who each had the option to pass. On one play, one quarterback handed off to the other, who then threw the ball. Though Robinson has not thrown with much zip in warm ups for the past three weeks, the possibility is there.
The idea of using playmakers in unconventional roles isn’t new for Borges. As the offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2004, he coached Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, both top-five NFL draft picks the following spring. He was handed the key to two Ferraris, but he only had one driver. Well, OK, one was actually a Cadillac, but he had to figure out a way to utilize them both at the same time.
“They’re both tailbacks, you know?” Borges said. “It didn’t seem like a fit, but if you could do enough homework to figure out how to get them both back there, there were ways to do it.”
And though Robinson didn’t throw on Saturday, Borges still found him a way to get involved — Robinson played in 20 of 62 offensive plays against Iowa. He lined up as a tailback and a wingback and a quarterback. He touched the ball on 18 of those plays.
Eight times, Robinson played quarterback, though he only went so far as to fake a pass once. (He lined up as a quarterback one other time, but Michigan called timeout before the snap).
Another six times, Gardner was under center flanked by Robinson and two other backs. He also lined up three times as a tailback and three as a wingback or receiver.
“There’s so many different things you can do with 11 guys, it’s like no other game,” Borges said. “That’s what kind of makes this game fun for coordinators.”
And Borges had his fun. Early in the game, Gardner handed off to Robinson, who then ran the option with redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint. Later, he used a triple reverse to get Robinson into open space. But Robinson may have been more effective as a decoy. In the full-house formation, Borges called a throwback screen and a misdirection pitch, each of which set up touchdowns. And with defenders creeping, Gardner enjoyed his best passing performance yet.
“When Denard had the ball, he made big plays, but when he didn’t have the ball, we had our even bigger plays,” Gardner said. “Just the attention he gets is amazing.”
The offense is still evolving, and Borges did not reveal much at his press conference on Tuesday, other than to say that the tinkering has been fun. And though the offense has been designed in Borges’s image, he hasn’t come up with a name that is likely to stick.
“We call it, ‘Denard in the backfield,’ ” Borges said.