What is Wrong in the State of Michigan? An Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 14, 2013 at 1:00p

The 2013 season began on a positive note for Michigan* but has since become a nightmare, namely because the Wolverine offense is increasingly dysfunctional. The Wolverine offensive utility is best epitomized by consecutive weeks with negative rushing yards, topped off with a home loss to Nebraska in which Michigan could only manufacture one touchdown, despite recovering a muffed Nebraska punt inside the 30 yard line.

Is it therefore worth examining what has happened with the Michigan offense.  Is it the scheme of offensive coordinator Al Borges? Is it the offensive talent level?

As is often the case, the answer is likely both. Scheme and execution are creating a mutually reinforcing negative effect. The lack of talent at particular spots has prevented Borges from running the type of offense he would prefer. Borges' play calling has defaulted to a hodgepodge of pro and spread looks without any coherent whole, allowing defenses to recognize what is coming pre-snap. Unfortunately from Michigan's perspective, this negative cycle is only become worse with each passing week.

What He Wants is not what he's got

Al Borges is not and has never been a spread to run coach. Borges instead moved up the coaching ranks as a West Coast disciple, including stops at UCLA and Auburn. Borges teamed with Brady Hoke at San Diego State to combine a West Coach passing scheme with a power-based run game, the same formula that Hoke wanted Borges to bring to Ann Arbor.

But Hoke and Borges inherited Rich Rodriguez's spread recruits, primarily in the form of Denard Robinson. In Hoke's first season, Borges adapted enough to using Robinson as a runner to lead Michigan to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory. Borges received a lot of credit at the time for being flexible, particularly in comparison to Rodriguez's disastrous first year when he tried to insert pro-style quarterbacks into his spread scheme.

In hindsight, however, it may have been Robinson who was papering over deficiencies in talent amongst Michigan's offensive staff and players. Robinson was a gifted and explosive runner, one who was a threat to create explosive plays at any time. Defenses were forced to game plan to stop Robinson, preventing teams from selling out against certain looks.  

Now Is the Time (OR MAYBE NOT)

Robinson's departure from Ann Arbor was supposed to allow Borges to fully implement his pro-style offense this season with quarterback Devin Gardner. But that plan quickly fizzled  for several reasons.

The first was the inability to run the football from under center. The Wolverines' interior line has been a mix of walk-ons and inexperienced players, and the Michigan coaching staff has spent the season playing musical chairs with the center and guard positions. Michigan has also received mediocre play from the tailback position. Fitzgerald Touissant is steady as a runner, but does not have the ability to make something out of nothing, which has often been the case.

The remaining problem with Wolverine I formation run game is the Michigan passing game. Michigan is not like Stanford where they can line up with multiple tight ends, run the football effectively and then throw play action off those looks. Borges would instead prefer to operate a NFL style passing game. The general reaction from an NFL team that cannot run the football is to repeatedly throw to move the football and try to force defenders out of the tackle box.

But Michigan is unable or unwilling to throw the football with the regularity or consistency necessary to force defenders out of the tackle box. While Gardner has had his moments, he has been turnover prone and shown a tendency to lock onto receivers. This is not uncommon. Staying in the pocket and working through five receiver progressions is extremely difficult. The NFL has trouble finding 32 quarterbacks that can consistently do so. This is why colleges have increasingly gone to spread schemes. While certainly not full proof, an offense can spread out the defense to create structural advantages where the quarterback can make quick throws or run.

Michigan's offensive line and tailbacks have also struggled in pass protection, in particular failing to pick up stunts and blitzes, leading to an avalanche of sacks that has resulted in Gardner being increasingly gun shy in the pocket.

The Total is less than its parts

As a result, Michigan has not been able to run or throw consistently from under center. In an attempt to move the football Borges has turned to doses of spread read plays, in particular inverted veer

But there are several problems with the mix and match approach of spread and pro styles. One is simply that practice time is limited. Plays can have a multiplying effect if the formation and blocking schemes are the same but the backfield action is different. This provides a different look to the defense but limits the offense from having to learn new concepts. But if a team is mix and matching disparate plays, an offense spends time practicing a bunch of things and not being good at any of them.

The bigger issue is that the disparate plays are not coherent or provide any constraint to the defense. There is no attempt to run a counter if a team is overplaying a base look. Opposing defenses can increasingly identify the type of plays Michigan will run depending on pre-snap formation and alignment. From under center Michigan tends to run lead run plays or max protect play action with two and three man routes. From the shotgun, Michigan is going to pass or run inverted veer. The Michigan offense is the opposite of Homer Smith's stated maxim that

Every primary backfield action needs to threaten all 11 defenders. What a primary play needs is good counter plays. Every defender needs to be worried about the ball coming to his area – on a throwback screen, a reverse, a play-action pass, or whatever – as a play begins.

Worse, Michigan has problems from each look. Michigan is so deficient under center that a defense can load the line of scrimmage. A defense will generally put at least one, if not more, defenders in the box. For instance, Nebraska often played Buddy Ryan's 46 defense when Michigan went under center, where the defensive line shifts weak to a bear front, the linebackers shift strong, and one of the safeties comes down as a linebacker.

Michigan's max protect play action passing only exacerbates the problem, as defenses are giving their linebackers key reads. If the running backs stay in to block the linebackers automatically blitz. This has proved a mismatch against the Wolverine protection schemes. (video H/T: MGoBlog).


Defenses bet that Michigan's receivers either can't get open against cover 1 man or that the pressure will reach Gardner before they do.

Plays Do Not an Offense Make

From the shotgun Michigan has had a different but equally troubling problem. Teams have figured out that Michigan wants Gardner to keep on inverted veer and are attacking the mesh point from the edge. (Video H/T: MGoBlog).


There are a number of ways a spread offense could respond to effectively counter the defense. They can fake the jet sweep with the offensive line blocking inside zone for the quarterback away from the blitz. They can run lead quarterback outside zone to the opposite side. Or they can run play action off inverted veer action.

Michigan's problem is that Borges has done none of this. It is unclear if this is an act of omission and commission. Again, Borges is not a spread coach. He may not have a feel or ability to game plan spread read constraints. Perhaps Michigan is trying to do so many things they do not have sufficient practice time. Or perhaps Borges is simply stubborn. Whatever the case, Michigan had success earlier this year moving the football from the shotgun but that has dissipated as their tendencies have become obvious and Borges has not adjusted. 

The upshot is that the Michigan offense has spiraled downhill as defenses gain more film. Gardner's play has also taken a step back as he has received a non-stop pounding. He has developed happy feet in the pocket and has become increasingly hesitant to throw into tight places. There are thus no easy fixes for Michigan as it seeks to pull itself out of its negative trajectory.

This post is made possible by the excellent analysis of Brian Cook and others at MGoBlog.  They have provided far more in-depth analysis of this issue then I ever could.  I consider it a must read for Michigan or Ohio State fans.


Comments Show All Comments

GoBucks713's picture

What is Wrong in the State of Michigan? An Offensive Breakdown

The word Offensive can be taken two ways in this statement.
Great read Ross. Your insight has helped me look like the smart guy when talking about football, and has actually helped me enjoy the game more as you have helped develop my knowledge! Long Live Ross!!! Long Live the Breakdown!!!
Do you think Fick and Co will also use the 46 against Michigan in 16 days or do you think the base defense we use now will be prominent?

-The Aristocrats!

Ethos's picture

if hoke fires borges, who does he replace him with?

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

blueinsconsin's picture

Scot Leoffler?  I honestly have no idea...

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Ethos's picture

I was thinking anybody that stayed in a holiday inn express last night.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

Curt Heinrichs's picture

 The detective from the Arby's commercials?

blueinsconsin's picture

Yes.  If he can find call a TD pass play as well as he can find a place that sells frozen deli meat, I'm all for him...

Not here to troll...Go Blue

toledobuckeyefanjim's picture

Bo Dietl, the New York City police detective. Having a first name of Bo would make scUM fans ejaculate and salivate all over themselves, thinking they have another "Bo" in their football program.

KevinJ's picture

Thank you for lending a Hand in the piling on of TTUN today!
Great read as always Ross, appreciate your insight.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Yep - and it just keeps getting worse up there - Hand to Bama - D'OH!!!  I'm wondering if there are some decommits that will be coming out of AA in the near future.

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

blueinsconsin's picture

I posted on MGo almost a year ago comparing Borges to Mike Martz and got blasted for it.  My point was that Borges doesn't fit his system to his players, he's too stubborn to adjust.  So until he has "his players" it's going to be a struggle to find any consistency from the offense on a week to week basis.  It appears the players he needs are starting to get into the system, they are just freshmen or rs freshman (or still in highschool).  I'm not confident that Borges will be around long enough to see these players mature, and at this point, I'm not sure if he deserves to stick around that long.

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

On the bright side - at least you didn't pick up Jim Bollman!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

blueinsconsin's picture

when you put it that way, Al Borges is pretty good..lol

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Nutinpa's picture

Then again...and not wanting to sound like a smart azz....whose offense would people want now?  Sparty's with Bollman -- Michigan's with Borges?
And who will be playing (likely) for the B1G championship?  Bollman.  With a team that up until now...and until they play OSU....at least resembles the 2002 team that Tressel assembled.  
No...they're not as good....but the Modis operandi is the same.
I think that would stop the laughter.

blueinsconsin's picture

I wonder how much say Bollman actually has in the offense.  He's not calling the plays for MSU is he?  That being said, this week, I would rather have MSU's offense b/c of the tire fire that is Michigan's right now.  In a few years?  I have a feeling I'd take Borges.  If I could choose any, I would take Michigan's from week 1 and 2 of this year.

Not here to troll...Go Blue

tennbuckeye19's picture

Do you think Borges is gonna be around in a year or 2? Of course, if Hoke is like Tressel in terms of loyalty to assistants, I'd say Borges will be there as long as Hoke.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think the more likely scenario is that, if Michigan loses out, Dave Brandon forces Hoke to bring in new offensive staff.

Earle's picture

As much as we like to bang on Denard around here, I agree that his big-play ability largely concealed these deep-rooted fundamental problems with Michigan's offense.  The first shoots were seen when Robinson was hurt last year, they budded in the second half against Ohio State, and are in full blossom this year.  And it is beautiful to see.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

hcazualcc's picture

watching michigan's offense is, well...painful


Metal Guru's picture

Ross, wouldn't you agree that Michigan's lack of success on passing plays is that the O-line can't keep Gardner upright long enough to find a receiver? In both the Michigan State and Nebraska games, as Gardner dropped back there were 2-3 defensive linemen breaking through the line in step with him. It's hard to complete a pass when the QB is on his back. The Michigan O-line is, without a doubt, the worst I've ever seen at the college level.

blueinsconsin's picture

The interior line is bad.  But, on passing downs, I think more blame can be put on Fitz and the RB for not being able to pick up a blitz ever.  Which, is also on the coaches.  

Not here to troll...Go Blue

kholmes's picture

I think Ross's points about problems with the scheme, lack of practice with too many looks, and poor pass protection from the running backs have alot to do with it and its not as simple as the offensive line being poor. Alot of the problems have occurred with 8 players in the box like above and there is no way the OL can handle that unless the running back can help out or the playcalling punishes the other team for those looks. As Spielman pointed out several times during the game, the pass pro from Fitz and Green were embarassing and we all agree on the playcalling being horrible.
The offensive line is an interesting study..there are two fairly high draft picks at the tackles and then weakness in the middle. Mel Kiper said today on twitter he still projects Taylor Lewan (LT) as mid first round and believes Michael Schofield (Michigan RT) will be 3rd round. So you have two good college linemen surrounded by three very inexperienced players. Current starters are a true freshman (Kyle Bosch at G), a former walkon (Graham Glasgow at C), and a redshirt freshman tackle playing guard (Eric Magnuson who will play tackle next year). I think this is what Michigan fans mean when they complain about Rodriguez as there are only two other scholarship linemen that are sophomores on the team. It wasnt only Rodriguez lack of OL recruiting as it was also the way that the transition was handled (Dave Brandon to blame) where Hoke only had a few weeks before signing day (RR fired in Jan) and he didnt really fix this Ol problem at all with 2011 recruiting. This is why Michigan has had to recruit so many linemen in 2012 and 2013 class (so they have 10 freshman and redshirt freshman OL right now)

Ross Fulton's picture

I do not dispute that they are still paying for RRod with the 2010 and 2011 OL recruiting...


That being said, a guy like Kyle Kalis should be ready to play. He got beat out by a walk-on. I also don't think they have helped things with the constant shuffling and moving of positions. Good OL play is all about continuity. 

kholmes's picture

Agree..I think many fans are now wishing they kept the original line (glasgow, miller, kalis) from the first few games in tact. The line clearly hasnt gotten any better but the move eliminated any cohesiveness due to all the changes of positions and personnel. Kalis wasnt bad for the first 6 games as most of the problems seemed to point towards the center spot and Miller being a little undersized. I was very surprised when he lost his job as most were expecting the changes to just be Glasgow moving over to center and 1 new guard entering the lineup.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

I'm starting to call shenanigans on that type of logic!  There are countless examples of great coaches winning and/or improving starting immediately and year 2.  It seems the only time that logic seems to make sense is when said coach is not living up to the hype/expectations, or doesn't actually have the skill sets to coach at that high of a level. 

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Toilrt Paper's picture

U of M's problem is Hoke doesn't have the guts to start one of his young Pro Style QB's and 100% of the time play a Pro Style Offense, what Hoke and Borges know. Neither know enough about the Spread Offense to play it successfully. AND the players Hoke has been recruiting the past 3 years are kids to fit his Pro Style offense. Hoke is afraid to move Gardner to WR and forget about the Spread. He doesn't want to hurt Gardner's feelings and he knows he will lose even more games doing what is best for his preferred offense. All he is doing is putting off the inevitable, which means his players will have to go through another learning period in the future instead of now.

blueinsconsin's picture

I think starting Gardner right now is still better than starting a true freshman QB in Shane Morris.  While I think Morris can be a very good QB, he would be even worse this season compared to Gardner.  Gardner has done a lot with his legs that Shane can't do.
I don't think Hoke is worried about hurting Garnder's feelings, I think (and I agree) that Hoke feels Gardner is the better QB right now.  

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Aesculus.'s picture

Michigan's interior line has got a lot of criticism.  But if you look at the center and guards 2 deep;

Eric Magnuson -Redshirt Freshman, 4 star Hoke recruit
G. Glasgo -Redshirt Sophmore , walk-on, Hoke recruit
Kyle Bosch -Freshman, 4 star Hoke recruit
Kyle Kalis -Redshirt Frosh, 4 star Hoke recruit
Jake Miller -Redshirt Sophmore, 3 star, Rich Rod recruit
Chris Bryant -Redshirt Sophmore, 4 star, Hoke recruit

Almost ALL recruited by Brady Hoke.  But the strenghs of their O-lin, the tackles are Rich Rod recruits!!  This is the opposite logic M fans are using, that Hoke doesn't have his players involved yet.
Now look at UFM.
OSU's D line.

Noah Spence- Sophomore, 5 star, UFM recruit
Joey Bosa, Freshman, 4 star, UFM
Joel Hale, Junior, 3 star, Tressel recruit
Michael Bennet, Junior, 4 star, Tressel recruit
Adolphis Washington- Sophmore, 5 star, UFM recruit
Tommy Shutt-sophomore, 4 star, UFM recruit

It's clear that the excuse of getting Brady's players in there doesn't hold up, especially when you look at what Meyer has done in less of a time period.  
Hello!!! Somebody is getting out coached!?

blueinsconsin's picture

Very few recruits can come in on the line and have a huge impact right away, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  One of the hardest positions to learn.  

Not here to troll...Go Blue

CowCat's picture

Inexperience at center is probably what's killing you most.   The center is usually the OL that calls out adjustments.

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

blueinsconsin's picture

Exactly..changing centers mid-season doesn't help either...

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Aesculus.'s picture

Taylor Decker, True Sophomore, 4 star, UFM recruit.  Starting right tackle.
Pat Elfin True Freshman and Jacoby Boren True Sophomore, both listed on the 2 deep O-line.
True freshman Dontre Wilson, and Ezekiel Elliot.
It really is coaching.

Ethos's picture

neither of those freshman are on the field for significant amounts of time compared to the freshmen on their offensive line

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

d5k's picture

To be somewhat fair, our LBs are probably the best comparison.  Lack of numbers a couple years ago led to inexperience and no depth this year.

blueinsconsin's picture

like I said, very few inexperienced young offensive linemen can really be impact players..Maybe Decker is one of those players.  

Not here to troll...Go Blue

Aesculus.'s picture

We're not talking about young "offensive lineman making an impact".  We're talking about gaining positive rushing yards and not getting sacked 7 times a game.  That's what I'd call knowing your assignments.  
Taylor Decker was the guy we got to replace Kyle Kalis.
Also take note of your 6 lineman listed and their "inexperience".  3- Third year players, 2-Second year players and a Frosh.

dlb72osu's picture

I think the point our brother Aesculus is making is very valid. Even though UFM did not recruit the OL, he has turned them from Tressel/Bollman coached recruits into a very efficient spread line, something they were not recruited to perform. Also, Urban has further intermixed upper classman with his first and second year recruits into an extremely cohesive TEAM. Simply listening to the descriptions coming out of the locker room can tell you how much they enjoy their teammates and the coaching staff. Urban has not only out-coached the rest of the B1G but he has man-upped them as well. 

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BeijingBucks's picture

This reads like Buckeye Porn...

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Blackbeards Delight's picture

"Perhaps Michigan is trying to do so many things they do not have sufficient practice time."
They (UM) always seemed to have sufficient practice time under Rich Rod ?

"Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23yr, it's what's for breakfast"

- Me


GOOMBAY's picture

Having the misfortune of attending two resounding Ohio State losses in Michigan Stadium (and all of the pleasantries shared with UM fans), I can only assume that "blueinsconsin" is a fan without country shunned for voicing truth and reason to power.
All kidding aside... Pointed and smart discourse among passionate opposing fan bases? For shame... FOR SHAME!

SweetBabyJames's picture

there offense sucks yes....alsomst as bad as ours in 2011, maybe worse...take your pick

harleymanjax's picture

"What is wrong in the State of Michigan"?
I think 11W better invest in more server space if we are going to attempt to discuss this matter..............

"Because I couldn't go for 3"

razrback16's picture

These offensive breakdowns are awesome -- my favorite articles on this site. I like when Ross breaks down opposing offenses as well.

Buckeye5000's picture

From the headline on the article:

What is Wrong in the State of Michigan?

How long you got? This might take a while........

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