Theories as to why the Michigan football team lost to Michigan State have circled around Ann Arbor since last Saturday.
The Wolverines weren’t tough enough. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson couldn’t pass worth a darn. The Spartans played dirty. The defense couldn’t tackle. The play calling was awful.
The list goes on. But there’s one theory that has been overlooked by most since Michigan’s 28-14 loss. To Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, it’s clear.
“It starts with the inability to run the ball,” Borges said at the weekly Inside Michigan Football Coach’s Radio Show on Wednesday. “As soon as you can’t play ahead of the chains and you put them in situations where they can be almost indiscriminate with their pressure, the margin for error becomes so small.”
The Wolverines were outrushed 213 yards to 82. They averaged a measly 2.3 yards per carry, while the Spartans checked in at 5.5 per rush.
Borges noted that Michigan State often crowded the box, making it tough for the Michigan running backs to find holes. The struggles on the ground, combined with the inability to throw the ball efficiently, made for a long day offensively.
“So much of what we do is based on (running the ball),” Borges said. “There’s a point in time when you’re gonna have to (throw to) take that ball down the field. But be that as it may, you still have to (run) to get them off you.”
Junior Vincent Smith led the running backs with eight carries for 37 yards, but his performance was hardly good enough to convince coaches that he deserves to be the Wolverines’ primary back.
Borges has said all season he’d prefer to have one main rusher, but one has yet to emerge. And now that the season is more than halfway over, it appears Michigan will continue to distribute the ball to multiple backs per game.
“We have not had anyone jump to the forefront on that,” Borges said. “We’re probably gonna continue to do the same thing, hopefully find a hot runner and give him the ball.”
PASSING PAINS: Despite Robinson’s poor performance in the air last weekend — he was 9-of-24 for 123 yards — Borges insists Robinson is better than he showed.
“He’s potentially a very good passer,” Borges said.
Borges noted that Robinson’s biggest hurdle this season has been adjusting to the pro-style offense. Borges compared Robinson to former UCLA and Chicago Bears quarterback Cade McNown, whom Borges coached in the mid-90s.
In his first full year behind center, McNown struggled and ranked 9th in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency.
The following season, McNown was first in the nation in passing efficiency and led the Bruins to a Pac-10 Championship.
“There’s so many things that a first-year quarterback in our pass offense is going to suffer through,” Borges said. “There’s no getting around it. In time you’ll see the same (turnaround) with Denard.”
SILVER LINING?: Some of the only good news about Michigan’s offensive struggles?
Sophomore punter Will Hagerup, who was suspended for the first four games of the season, had a chance to show off his leg.
Hagerup averaged just 32 yards per punt, but he landed four of his seven punts inside the Spartans’ 20-yard line. It was especially impressive considering the blustery and cool conditions on Saturday.
“The biggest thing that happens in a game when you have that kind of wind is your kicking game,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Monday. “Your kicks have to change a little. I thought (Hagerup) did a pretty nice job in there a couple times for sure.”
TIME TO HEAL: Robinson missed the final series of the game on Saturday with an undisclosed upper-body injury, but Robinson and Hoke both insist he’ll be ok for next Saturday’s matchup against Purdue.
“He’s just beat up a little bit,” Hoke said. “I think it’s more his back than anything, but he’ll be fine. The rest will be good for him.”
The bye week has come at a good time for several other players as well.
Sophomore safety Marvin Robinson, who started at free safety against Notre Dame on Sept. 10 but has played sparingly since, “still has some lingering injuries,” according to Hoke.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Brandon Herron, who became the first player in Michigan history to score two touchdowns on defensive returns in one game during the season opener against Western Michigan, remains sidelined because of a leg injury.
“Herron still isn’t where we want him to be,” Hoke said.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Cam Gordon returned to action on special teams against the Spartans and “is much better than he was,” according to Hoke, after sitting the first five games out with a back injury.