SITE NOTE: due to this taking longer than I wanted it to and triple OT, UFR will be in the evening today.
Devin Gardner threw many passes that hit Northwestern defenders on Saturday, a good number of them I CAN'T BELIEVE HE DROPPED THAT interceptions. There were moments when I was going over the game where it seemed like it wasn't really all that bad because of thing X or thing Y, and then moments where it was very, very bad. So I thought I'd pull this out of a larger UFR discussion and try to evaluate just what happened on the various passes on which Gardner's throws hit Northwestern players.
Normally I wouldn't put batted passes in here, but there were a few incidents where batted passes were the only thing separating Northwestern from yet another pass that hit them in the hands and was inexplicably dropped, so they are also added.
Category #1: Understandable Items
#1: Gardner gets a heavy rush due to a bad blitz pickup, escapes it, and tries to throw late to a covered Devin Funchess; ball gets batted down at the line.
That's probably a PBU at worst, and he's under heavy duress.
#2: Michigan botches a freeze play when Northwestern jumps but does not cross the line. Gardner thinks he's got a free play and tries a back shoulder fade to Gallon that could be farther outside; it's a nice play by a DB who seems totally bailed out to come back to the ball and a poor one by Gallon not to break this off sooner once he perceives the DB is way over the top. The DB actually reads this obvious back shoulder opportunity before he does; he should be breaking back so that he gets to the ball before the DB.
#3: Third down rollout on the next play sees no one open. Gardner tries to fit it in to Dileo anyway, and leaves it a little inside of where it should be. Gardner's about to be hammered and goes for it.
This wasn't really close to an INT and you might as well try for the first down.
Category #2: Death-Defying Really Bad Ideas
#1: The first incident of this variety happens three minutes into the second quarter. Gardner drops back, pump-fakes a slant to Funchess, and then throws it.
He does get pressure from another crappy slide protection on which Lewan ignores a DE, and unless Gallon is open deeper to the outside the best case scenario here is a sack if he does not throw the ball. That was the move.
#2: Gardner bobbles a snap on third and three and comes up firing a wheel route that NW jumps and is thinking pick six on; they blitzed and left Jake Butt screamingly wide open.
The snap bobble takes Gardner's eyes off the defense and contributes here. Still: turrible.
#3: Michigan fortunate to have a slant batted down at the line as Northwestern undercuts whatever Gardner is looking at, in fact with two guys in Butt's case.
Gardner had Gallon as an option on the other side of the field.
[After the JUMP: another category, and evaluation.]
Category #3: Guys Popping Up In Bad Places
One of the themes of the day was Northwestern dumping guys into areas they expected Michigan to throw and getting those throws, often because Michigan had few other options. You may remember that a bunch of throws to Jeremy Gallon seemed scary because they had to get over a defender, and that's because Northwestern was dropping an end to his side on play after play.
This was mostly just scary, as that DE ended up about six inches from batting the ball three or four times. I know that OCs hate it when you throw over dropping defenders, because the windows there are small and the result if you miss it is the sort of PBU that flutters into the air for the rest of the secondary to pounce on, but on a lot of these throws Gardner had no better options.
The first play here was a Gallon drop, the second a completion.
This one was another pass batted at the line that Michigan was fortunate to get away with:
This is a bad read, too, but I have sympathy for Gardner as Northwestern is clearly sitting on this exact thing and gets it.
Again, options there are Gallon or Funchess not particularly open or thing Michigan does all the time and Northwestern is hoping they will do. On the next third down a similar thing happens, as Michigan rolls the pocket hoping for a comeback route to Chesson and NW just runs a guy under it.
This is a terrible decision on which his best option is to throw the ball out of bounds and set up fourth and four, which is a terrible option when you have a minute left and are down three points.
At least he didn't throw this pop pass on which Northwestern is waiting to have the ball clang off their hands.
It wasn't as bad as it looked because it was worse. Gardner had two or three balls knocked down at the line that were headed for at least PBUs and possibly interceptions if anyone on Northwestern had been familiarized with the idea of catching a football. And for the most part these were on him. Even if you have nowhere to go, the play is usually to eat the sack and live to fight another day. There were six passes on which Gardner threw into near-INT coverage without a mitigating factor. That is brutal.
Borges really did not help, though. Michigan's first throw over about 15 yards occurred with under a minute left in regulation, that a fly route just over Chesson's head after the rollout sack to put Michigan in second and twenty-three. That was the first time Michigan even looked at one—they didn't try to get some deep throws off only to be thwarted by pressure. It was windy, but it wasn't that windy, especially when you've got this offense.
Like the last two games, Northwestern had several instances where they were basically reading Borges's mind on key plays late. Even most of the completions to Gallon were a foot away from trouble with Northwestern dropping DEs into his area most of the day. Quarterbacks don't usually have the number of opportunities to throw near INTs that Gardner did in this game, and this is against a Northwestern secondary that is not particularly good.
For most of the day, Michigan had nothing with which to respond. They broke Butt to an out route on the pop pass for six yards. That was about it. It wasn't until the last play of the second overtime and first play of the third that he made an adjustment by sending Gallon on open post routes, the first of which was dropped by Gallon, the second of which was winged wide by Gardner. "We didn't execute" is approved in re: those two plays. Better late than never, I guess, but taking 3.5 quarters to adapt usually means your great idea comes on the bus ride home. The rest of the day was spent with hitch after hitch that was dangerous and blanketed pop passes, etc.
The regression question. How much of this is on Michigan not having anyone open versus Gardner not being good at quarterbacking versus Borges not being a great QB coach is unknown. Gardner seems to be regressing, like Denard seemed to regress before him. While there are a lot of reasons Gardner's decision-making is going the wrong direction—most prominently the barbarian waves charging through the offensive line—this is verging on a trend.
Is there a counter-trend in Borges's career? Unfortunately, he's bounced around so much that it's almost impossible to get a read on whether he can develop a quarterback. The only extended stints in his career were from 1996 to 2000 at UCLA and 2004 to 2007 at Auburn.
At UCLA, Borges had Cade McNown, who went from an INT-mad sophomore with a 52% completion rate to a 10 YPA, 3 TD : 1 INT guy his last two years. After McNown left, three UCLA QBs combined to have a miserable year in 1999, with freshman Cory Paus becoming the starter and putting up 6.8 yards an attempt on under 50% completions. Paus got better the year after with a 9.0 YPA, ok TD/INT ratio, and 56% completion percentage, whereupon Bob Toledo got broomed. Paus was basically the same player under the new regime. Complicating matters: Toledo had been UCLA's offensive coordinator the two years before he was promoted, so it's tough to suss out what was Toledo and what was Borges.
At Auburn he was definitely in charge of everything. After one year of Jason Campbell that went very well, Borges had Brandon Cox, who had a degenerative muscle disease and went backwards, finishing his career with his worst YPA (6.6), 9 TDs, and 13 INTs. These are literally the only serious data points we have here, as those are the only stints of his career that have lasted longer than two years other than this one. (Borges has a knack for showing up at places just before the coaching staff gets canned.) Can Borges develop a quarterback? I have no idea. It doesn't help that he had a QB coach at San Diego State who had some hand in developing Ryan Lindley.