[In part 1, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges describes a typical game week and talks about the process of game preparation. In part 2, Borges talks about game day, calling plays, the infamous Ohio State game, and bubble screens. There is no part 3. =( ]
Okay it’s game day. I’m guessing the first thing you do is meet with all the coaches.
“Yeah. What we do is we’ll -- we don’t actually meet. We’ve already got that pretty much out of our system, although I’ve been at places where we did. I’ve been at places where the head coach wanted to meet on game day and talk about everything. But we’ve already hashed all that out. There’s no reason to bother with that at that point.
“But you know, we get up and have a little walk-through usually down at the church -- by the church across the street from the Campus Inn.”
I think I’ve seen you guys.
“Yeah. We’ll have a little walk-through, which is great. It gets the guys thinking about football. We started doing that about the middle of our first year. And then there’s a pre-game [meeting], depending on when the game is.
“Something that’s worthy of mention is that we go through a call-sheet rehearsal with all the interns and everybody that puts that together. You have to understand that I’m a bit of a technological moron. I don’t do --
[Borges gestures to his computer]
“-- All this stuff. I’m too old. I’m not real computer savvy and all that. I mean I can open a computer and find stuff for the most part if you want anything … I let the GAs kind of do that. But what we do is we go through sometimes as many as two or three games with those guys, and one with the quarterbacks where we’ll put a game on, and I’ll call the game practicing off -- say we’re playing Notre Dame and Notre Dame played USC. I’ll put the USC game on, put my call sheet in front of me, and whatever SC did, if they gained three yards [to get to] a second and seven, I will practice the call in that area that I would call in that situation. And maybe Notre Dame played Purdue, SC, and whoever. With those three games I’ll go through a whole call sheet of three games just practicing calling the plays. And we’ll do that on Friday so that, just like the players, I’ve rehearsed what I’m going to call and what I’m going to do. That Friday the quarterbacks will come in and I’ll do it with the quarterbacks.”
So they know what you’re thinking.
“See, what you’re trying to do with a game plan is you’re trying to present as few surprises as possible to them. The more surprises you get, the more likely you’ll have an error.”
I see. So you do the walk-through, pre-game stuff, and you’re super prepared. A couple hours before the game, you make it down to the Stadium and go up to the box. Then what?
“I watch the band.”
“I watch the band!”
Oh okay …
“I’m done! There’s nothing else to do. There’s no build-up to a crescendo. I just watch the band. Put the call sheet in front of me. Get everything in order. Have a little note sheet. My intern up there, he will pass me errors as the game progresses -- Stephen Weins. He’ll write things down, and every series he’ll give them to me, and then I’ll get Devin or whoever the quarterback is on the phone and go over the errors so that everything’s being addressed as it’s screwed up.”
Ah. I’m kind of interested in how communication works between the box and the field.
You’re on the phone with --
“I’m on the phone with Steno (?), who sends the play and everybody can hear the play. The group guy can hear the play so he can send the correct personnel in the game. And we document as we go.”
So you send the call down to the field and the offense lines up. But then the defense comes out in their formation. What if they show you something you weren’t expecting?
“Well, you have built-in … Certain plays you run and you don’t really care. You run and you don’t worry about what the defense is doing because they can handle pretty much anything. Other plays are what we call ‘must-audible’ situations, where the play is not conducive to what you’re seeing and your likelihood for success is not good. So the quarterback should get you out of the play. And then we have what we call ‘advantage’ audibles where the defense maybe lined up giving you something you didn’t anticipate and the quarterback will get you into an advantage situation. And then you have ‘check’ plays where you’ll have two plays called in the huddle: one versus a certain look, another versus another look.
"You know, you’ve got so many ways [to call] a play -- the game’s become very sophisticated that way where you can use a lot of on-the-line-of-scrimmage plays. We’re not a team that peeks to the sideline to get a lot of plays and stuff. The pro quarterback is programmed to do -- if he sees this, do that, and if he sees this, do that, and so on.”
How is Devin doing in that respect?
“Oh he’s good. Yeah. But he’s been in the system for a few years. Plus he played wide receiver, which didn’t hurt any. He’s seen it from both perspectives, which you don’t really have with most quarterbacks. They don’t really understand. So he does pretty good. The more the quarterback plays, the more he’s afforded the lattitude of changing the plays and doing whatever. The newer the quarterback, the less you get into a chess game on the line of scrimmage.”
Gotcha. I want to ask you about something you’ve said in the past, about how the success of your offense later in the game is often dependent on your success earlier in the game --
“Right -- turns."
"Your issues with play-calling are what I call ‘turns.’ How many turns do you get? How many chances do you get? How many first downs do you get so that you can call more plays? And this is where you become a victim of execution to a degree.
“There’s a lot of criticism, I know, from the Ohio State game, which the plan was very similar [to the Iowa game] and there was a lot of the lauding or praises for the Iowa game. A lot of the [Ohio State] plan was in the Iowa game. There was a lot of the same stuff. There was a little more nuance that we actually ended up running in the bowl game -- I’m telling you something I haven’t told anyone before -- but the second half of the Ohio State game we didn’t get to a lot of those calls because we failed on third-down-and-short situations several times. We failed, we turned the ball over a couple times. A lot of those calls don’t get out of your mouth. You see what I mean?
“I told you guys this in the press conference, and I remember saying this: everybody’s going to complain about the play-calling and who’s touching the ball, you know? Getting carries? If you’re not getting first downs, you’re not getting calls out. You don’t get that turn. You lost that turn, because something went wrong and you didn’t move the chains. You turn the ball over. And now everybody’s going to think you screwed it up, which, at the end of the day, maybe you did. It’s not all the players; it’s the coaches, too, now. We don’t always make the perfect call. But the bottom line is at the end of the day, if you don’t get a lot of chances to call plays, you’ll always be short. You won’t rush the ball very well. Nobody will rush for 100 yards. You won’t have a receiver catching over 100 yards. Your quarterback won’t have good numbers. You have to keep the chains moving so the play-caller can get more calls off. You’re in a constant situation where you’re trying to set plays up, but if you don’t get to those plays, you never get to the counterpunch.”
I see. So for your offense to be successful, you need the opportunity to run plays so you can set up other plays.
There were plays that you ran in the bowl game that you didn’t run against Ohio State because you weren’t able to set them up?
What would happen if -- let’s say there’s a run play that has pass component as the counter punch. If the run wasn’t successful, could you still call the pass?
“Doesn’t work that way. Because you have to understand the residual effect of football plays. This is very difficult for fans to understand. And I’m not being condescending, because it would be for me if I were [a fan].
"People sometimes don’t understand the value of a failed play. Sometimes the defense overdefends a play and gives you another play by doing so. So you may run a run in there and it doesn’t gain anything, and obviously people say, ‘Quit running the ball up the middle!’ How many times do you hear that? ‘Don’t run the ball up the middle!’ Well sometimes running up the ball up the middle will afford you the opportunity to pull the ball out and throw the ball down the field, because people are so aggressive with playing that play up the middle. I call it the residual effect of football plays. What’s the leftover effect of what we just did?
"If both plays don’t work, then you probably have a problem. Either the plan wasn’t good or your execution’s off. There’s only two ways plays fail. The plan isn’t good or your execution is lousy. Overdefended, underexecuted. That’s why plays fail. But you have to understand that a play, just because it fails, doesn’t mean it’s a bad play. It may give you something down the line. For example, if you ran the ball into the line of scrimmage and gained a half a yard. But the play-action pass off that play gained 35 yards. What’s the average of the two plays?”
“Would you take that?”
I’d take that.
“Not a man in the world wouldn’t. And that’s why you have to understand, that’s how it works sometimes. It costs something at times to get to that 35-yard gain.”
How does having a head coach like Brady Hoke who goes for fourth downs and hates settling for field goals change the way you call plays?
“You just have to be prepared for those situations, you know? When he says, ‘I’m going for it on fourth-and-one,’ just make sure you have a play ready. Sometimes he’ll ask, ‘How do you feel about it?’ and he’ll get on the headset.
“Now the one thing that people don’t understand -- they think that because he doesn’t wear a headset he’s not communicative. That’s insane. You have to be on my end of it. Any time something’s crucial, he does have a headset on and he is communicative. Two-minute drills, fourth-and-one. He makes sure that all that stuff’s in. I’ve never been up there not knowing what to do based on his decision right away.”
Do you like his aggressiveness?
“Oh yeah. Hell yes. Sends a great message to everybody. The offense, the defense, to the whole team. We’re not playing this thing to tie to game. We’re playing this thing to win the game, which means … sometimes Babe Ruth struck out, right? A lot. More than anybody I think, for a while. You’re going to swing and miss at times, but if you don’t swing hard, you ain’t gonna hit a home run. You have to go out there and you have to play.”
And it probably helps knowing that on third down, you have two chances to convert.
“Yeah, and he’ll keep you informed when he’s going to do that generally. He’ll say, ‘You have two to do that.’ Again, he does a great job of communicating. He’ll say, ‘Al, you have two plays to make this first down.’ Unless something blows up, he’ll stick to that. Like if you get sacked for a seven-yard loss, he’ll say, ‘All bets are off. We’re kicking a field goal now.’
“He’s awesome because coach Hoke never loses his composure. While other coaches are screaming in skulls or yelling at the officials or yelling at their own team or they’re doing whatever, he’s always composed. He’s doing whatever gives you a chance -- we’ve come back in a lot of games since I’ve been here. Several games we’ve been behind. And [the fact that we win] is generally the head coach. The head coach sends that message more than anybody. He doesn’t lose it, so nobody loses it.”
What do you do at halftime?
“Just go down and look at what they’ve done defensively, you know? Take all the data that I’ve been given from in the box and from the guys downstairs and then put together a new script of plays. Maybe it’s not 15-17 plays. Maybe eight or nine plays. But put together a new script of plays that we think were overdefended or underdefended and start the second half and put some plays in that maybe we didn’t run in the first half, maybe we didn’t get a chance to call it.”
Okay. Time is almost up, so let’s talk some philosophy. What do you think is the most efficient way to move the ball?
“Oh. Through balance. It’s the ability to run and pass with balance. Because that’s what the defense doesn’t want to see. Most of the time, why we fail offensively is our inability to do one or the other. Run or a pass. When you’re the most effective in playcalling … I can go like this, Heiko.”
[Borges pulls out the Ohio State call sheet. Without looking, he points to a random play.]
“Read 64 --”
(I am not sure what this means.)
“-- And it works. You want to know why? Because we threw a pass out of read 64 and now they have to defend [the pass] and pray you [pass]. It doesn’t make any difference. When they’re forced to defend both dimensions, the safeties have to play softer, which allows you to run. You understand?”
“If they’re playing too aggressively on the run, the outside becomes more vulnerable. It’s hard to defend everything unless you’re imposing.”
So you call the formation and the play, but the quarterback ultimately decides run or pass?
“Right, but not with every play. It just depends on the play. Certain times, yes, exactly. And the decision within the passing game, too. Once you’ve called a pass play, the decision-making’s huge. It’s not forcing the ball into coverage knowing that certain times they take certain throws away. And you have to have a contingency plan for every single play. I learned this from Bill Walsh. This is the first thing I learned in pass offense. When everything’s not perfect, what’s your contingency plan? Who’s the next guy? And then who’s the next guy after that? And then if nobody’s open, what’s the quarterback do? You have to have a plan after that that’s not helter-skelter. You can’t go out there willy-nilly and say ‘This didn’t work, let’s turn this into backyard football.’ There has to be structure within your improv.”
Speaking of Bill Walsh, what’s the endpoint in the evolution of the Michigan offense?
“What do you mean?”
Well, you and Brady have talked about changing the look of the offense for the last three years. Obviously you’re not there yet, but is there an endpoint to the evolution, and what does that offense look like?
“Oh, it won’t stop evolving. We can’t stop evolving. If you look at the way college football changes over the years -- I mean, what it looks like now doesn’t look the like it did in 1986. Players are getting faster and stronger … What defenses are doing with their coverages and zone blitzing is a lot more sophisticated. If you look at what Michigan was doing back in 1940 with [Tom] Harmon carrying the ball, even the uniforms weren’t the same. You can’t stop evolving. That’s why we do so much time studying what other people are doing. Now, we may not use all of it, but we have to keep up.”
Do you see Michigan as having a niche in college football as far as offense goes?
“Hmm. I don’t know about that … What I can tell you is that we are always going to be balanced. We are going to run and pass with balance, and we’re going to do it in a way that helps our defense, even if that’s not the direction a lot of teams are going.”
What do you mean exactly?
“Well, I’m not going to get into that discussion too much, but so many guys want to run 80 plays a game these days and then they wonder, ‘Gee, why isn’t the defense playing well?’ If I thought we would be more successful going 100 miles an hour all the time, I’d do it.”
Could you do it if you wanted to?
“Oh definitely. We have what we call Nascar, and we could run it all day if I thought it would give us the best chance of winning. But it doesn’t. Over the last three years I’ve done a lot of research, and it shows that you play better as a team when you play to all three phases of the game. Offense, defense, and special teams. It’s a team sport. I’d be more than happy if the offense doesn’t put up a ton of points as long as at the end of the day, we win, because I hate -- I HATE being in that meeting room after a loss. It’s the worst feeling.”
All right. Well thanks so much for your time. Do you mind if I take a photo of you?
“No, go right ahead.”
How about next to your white board. Okay, act like I just asked you about bubble screens.
“Heh. You had to turn this into a [farfergnugen] circus, didn’t you.”
Sorry ... What is your deal with bubble screens anyway?
“I don’t have a problem with them! I just don’t like calling them as much as -- what most people don’t understand is that the bubble screen is an [alternative] to a run play. Here, let me show you.”
[Borges begins scribbling madly on his white board. He has the offense in I-formation and the defense with the defensive back over the slot rolled up in the box as a run defender.]
“The bubble screen is a play designed to take advantage of the fact that this guy --”
[Borges points to the defensive back.]
“Has moved up and inside to defend the run. When you see this, most guys want to throw a weak-[butt] bubble screen and run around it. I would rather --”
[Borges draws an emphatic arrow from the running back to the defensive back.]
“Run right into it and knock the [poop] out of this guy.”
“So it’s not that I’m against calling a bubble screen. I just wouldn’t want to do it and sacrifice five running plays a game. Once or twice? maybe.”
For the record, I don’t actually count the number of bubble screens you call.
“You can do whatever the [heck] you want.”