- Terra Molengraff/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 28, 2012
LINCOLN — Al Borges is no fool.
The Michigan football team’s second-year offensive coordinator is an avid history buff by night and a kingpin of quarterback development by day. He groomed future NFL first-round draft picks Cade McNown at UCLA and Jason Campbell at Auburn.
The journeyman coach Borges came to Ann Arbor with Michigan coach Brady Hoke 22 months ago tasked with perhaps his biggest challenge yet: Transitioning the Wolverines from the spread offense back to its pro-style roots while still catering to the skill set of dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, a speedster built for the spread.
That duality birthed what Borges dubbed the “hybrid pro-style offense,” a temporary mish-mash of shotgun, sweeps and I-formations that nobody is built for.
And nobody is built to watch it, either. It’s been a painful split between elation, when Robinson slings a perfect screen or dodges between defenders, to anxiety when he tries to settle in the pocket, tries to set his feet and be a regular quarterback.
Has it worked? Sure, it’s worked some. Michigan has managed a 16-5 record since Borges took the reins of the offense.
But it’s hard to ignore that something isn’t there. Borges has taken some of the blame along the way, too.
Michigan has failed to score a single touchdown in three games this fall — losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska and a victory over Michigan State. Yes, thank your lucky brunettes that redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons powered a touchdown-less Michigan squad to victory over the Spartans.
The last time the Michigan football team went without a touchdown in three different games was in 1962. That quarterback was Bobby Timberlake, not Denard Robinson.
The Michigan offense has carried drives into opposing territory six times in each of those touchdown-less games this season. That’s 18 optimal drives for the good guys. None of them have finished in the end zone, and only half of those drives have ended with field goals.
The drives have entered the red zone nine times, penetrated the 10-yard line six times. But none got further than the three-yard line, that’s where you’ll find the brick wall.
You can criticize the players, you can praise the defenses and you can make excuses. But at some point you have to take a look at the play calls.
There was a simple pitch to senior running back Vincent Smith at the 10-yard line against Notre Dame. Smith had a man open in the end zone, so he tossed it … well behind the receiver and into the arms of a defender.
There was Michigan running 10 plays in five trips to the red zone against the Fighting Irish and only passing once. If at first you don’t succeed, run, run again.
There was a third-down give to Smith with Michigan down 10 points that ended in a loss of four against Nebraska.
Some of the calls just make you shake your head.
And then there’s the Bellomy matter.
After Robinson was knocked out of the Michigan-Nebraska game in the second quarter on Saturday, Hoke and Borges turned to little-used redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy to lead the offense.
It got ugly fast. Like turn-off-the-TV ugly.
Bellomy completed three passes to his receivers and three to the Nebraska secondary. His final stat line read 3-for-16 passing for 38 yards and three interceptions.
Borges, also the quarterbacks coach, didn’t have a game-ready quarterback behind the injury-prone Robinson. A one-possession deficit never felt so insurmountable.
Granted, Bellomy got no help from his receivers, who came down with a case of the dropsies as they are wont to do with Bellomy at quarterback. But the Michigan offensive scheme, compounded by the limited playbook with Bellomy under center, was downright predicable.
Hoke swore it wasn’t.
“I don’t think so,” Hoke said. “I know what Al changes up formationally, and, no.”
I beg to differ.
Bellomy’s first drive: Rush, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, punt. They went into the locker room at halftime to regroup.
His first drive of the second half followed the same pattern: Rush, pass, pass. So did the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
That sequence spanned the entire third quarter, when the Michigan defense was somehow keeping game within a score. That “unpredictable” rush-pass-pass pattern is only unpredictable if you’ve got the defense over-guessing on Bellomy like on a multiple-choice bubble sheet. (I’ve had like six ‘C’s in a row, so this one can’t be a C, right?) Gee dangit, it was a C every time.
The fourth rush-punt-punt drive, though, broke the pattern because the incomplete pass on third down was salvaged with a pair of 15-yard penalties against the Cornhuskers. That 30-yard penalty equated to Michigan’s second-longest offensive play of the game and was twice as long as Bellomy’s longest gain.
In the fourth quarter, Borges decided to shake things up. So he ordered up a deep ball to catch Nebraska sleeping. Well, the defense had been doing nothing but bringing pressure on Bellomy and sticking somewhere in the same zip code as his receivers.
Bellomy lofted a pass downfield, a few yards short of his intended target and straight into Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford’s arms.
The game plan didn’t work. It just didn’t.
But on Tuesday, when Borges sits down for his weekly press conference, he’ll likely say that he wouldn’t go back and change anything, like he says every week. He’ll say the players just didn’t execute.
Borges is no fool, and that would be foolish.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.