So you saw Michigan's backup plan in case Denard gets knocked out early in a competitive game. The plan was Bellomy. And you saw Bellomy. With regard to the skills, talent, and preparation required to be a competitive Big Ten quarterback, Bellomy was terrible. The offense immediately imploded, Michigan's Rose Bowl chances dropped to "not likely" and we were left facing the bleakness of a Robinson-less future.
So long as nards were left to nard we were perfectly content to ignore things like an apparent lack of receiver talent, or whether the redshirt freshman backup QB we snake oiled away from Purdue could perform well enough in an important game scenario that nobody would think to ask about Jack Kennedy. We could even be blasé about what appears to be persistent offensive coaching mistakes. It was all masked by Wheeeeee!! Saturday the whee was taken away and we got our first real glimpse of the structure they're building underneath it. We've got questions.
1. When your freshman QB is 4 of 21 with 4 interceptions on the year, why not try the junior 5-star quarterback you've got playing receiver?
Everyone can pick a moment. For me it was Russell's first completion of the game, a 12-yard pass to Kerridge:
Alright open man! Get there! … It's still not there. Okay coverage isn't there yet either. But what's taking so long? Did it just sail? No it's on target. Okay here it comes. Catch! First down on the Utah thirty-eigh…oh dear god.
We already knew how bad it could get, but this suddenly looked like we had an outer bound for how good it could get. The feet weren't set, and a guy was coming toward his face, and he got rid of it to the open receiver for 12 yards. Except Kerridge had been open over there for several seconds. And then with that entire windup the ball delivered is a full Sheridan.
With the opponent blitzing their brains out there's going to be open receivers, and Bellomy can learn to find them quicker. But the guys can't stay open so long that defenders won't arrive sometime during the three seconds the ball's in the air. The weird dropsies when Bellomy is throwing the ball could be related to this as well. Accustomed to catching zippy Denard passes, the receivers I imagine are getting thrown off by the the extra half-second of waiting for the ball to arrive. They're losing focus, putting their minds downfield or setting off internal alarms that the coverage is arriving. You'll note in this game more than a few of Russell's open targets were lit up upon reception—the personal foul on Jackson is a good example. Simply the anticipation of such a hit is a known cause of drops.
The scary lack of arm strength raised a few questions, like why he was recruited in the first place if a cannon is a pre-req for Borgesian offense, but a more pressing and more dire query is how bad can Gardner be if they've got this dude under center instead of him?
He's playing receiver. In fact, for all his faults at receiver, he's better at that than our other options. It falls a little flat to say if he's not out there Jeremy Jackson would be, since Jeremy Jackson is out there all the damn time. More to the point, Gardner practiced all week at receiver, and sending him in unprepared would have been unfair, would undermine his confidence, and probably resulted in yackety crap like that which ended the 2011 Michigan State game.
Your brain as it watched Bellomy could not compute this because fan brains tend to hit the panic button and authorize the flinging of excrement in the hopes of finding anything that sticks. This is why it nodded sagely at things like "throw Cullen Christian in there" when the 2010 secondary was staggeringly bad. It cannot compute that things could possibly get worse. The thing is, things can possibly get worse. Obviously the coaches felt that putting an unprepared Gardner in to run "Gardner and stuff" wasn't an option.
Hoke made sure to stress the "if you don't practice during the week at quarterback you don't play" thing in his postgame presser, getting it in as a response to questions about Denard's readiness for Minnesota. I take that as a not-so-subtle reminder that this staff has more patience than the last one, and more patience than the fan-brain. Their plan seems to be if Denard goes down in-game it's Bellomy, but if we lose Robinson for a week or more, Gardner will be preparing for that game.
[More things I don't want to ask after THE JUMP]
2. Are the receivers going to get any better, and who let them get to this point in the first place?
Brian covered the recruiting under Rich Rod. To recap (guys with catches this year in bold):
2008: Odoms and Koger played early. Stonum couldn't follow the rules of his probation. Moore was a bust. Roundtree was the seminal Purdue receiver who makes for a great slot but will never be big enough to win the physical battles Michigan's offense puts him in. Despite the size, he's a plus-plus blocker, something that can be said about Gallon too.
2009: Stokes is Bowling Green's sixth receiver. Cam Gordon is and always was a linebacker and nobody ever planned on him sticking on offense, so I'm not even going to count him further. Jeremy Gallon is a great slot bug and screen target but his size makes him a very limited downfield threat.
2010: D.J. Williamson wasn't a football player but only Michigan apparently didn't know this. Jerald Robinson is buried on the depth chart. Ricardo Miller became a tight end then moved back to receiver but that ship has pretty much sailed. Jeremy Jackson is a possession receiver who can't catch or leap very well. Ironically considering the outcry at the time of his recruitment, Drew Dileo has probably been the best receiver from the big receiver class. He had a career game against State but again, he's a slot not a WCO wideout. Devin Gardner (right: Upchurch) moved to WR this season and despite dropping a big pass per game, he leads the team in TDs, and is second to Gallon in receptions and yards.
2011: No receivers. Michigan looked good for Sammy Watkins until November when it started to look unlikely that Rodriguez wouldn't be returning. Hoke used the few weeks between his hiring and NSD to patch the defense, which was the more pressing need.
2012: Darboh is playing, but his major contribution so far has been bad blocking. A.J. Williams has played as a blocking TE but at that he's not as good as Kwiatkowski has been. Funchess has holes in his blocking but has shown to be an excellent receiving tight end. Chesson redshirted.
So blame: three slots recruited for RR's system, five badly scouted wide receiver-type guys, one leftover Lloyd TE who was a bust, at least one would-be sophomore lost to The Process, one on the player himself, and few tight ends because Rodriguez didn't think he needed them; his walk-on program did manage to turn up Mike Kwiatkowski in 2010. Blame abounds here, but it's hard to put it all on Rodriguez, since his system had somewhat different things it asked.
Gardner's spotty effectiveness and Darboh's no-show so far in stat lines both demonstrate the apparent difficulty of training new receivers. This is probably completely normal and I'm just biased because my experience with young receivers has been Rodriguez dudes who just had to block and run around and stuff, and the never-ending train of instantly sound wideouts from Amani Toomer to Junior Hemingway under the tutelage of Erik Campbell. I mean: ARGH!
Don't turn around, 'cause you're gonna see my heart breaking. /Ace of Base'd.
The things they screw up are not just West Coast Offense things, though that offense magnifies the mistakes of bad routes and bad adjustments. Hecklinski is an unquestionably good guy (says everyone who ever talks about him) but he's a young guy and seems to be here because Borges is grooming him to be a college O.C. someday. He did develop a couple of Biletnikoff candidates at Ball State, and S.D. State had several guys atop the NCAA ranks when he left, but I can't help but hold a lot of the fundamental mistakes by receivers at Michigan in 2011-'12 against him. Watching Iowa's receivers I'm reminded just how good Campbell was for us; if/when Ferentz and co. are let go I'd be very much in favor of bringing him back. Maybe Heck can be the QBs coach (he was a QB in college and the Arena League.)
Either way next year Michigan almost certainly loses Gardner to quarterback, and will lose Roundtree to graduation. Unless you see Jackson-Gallon-Dileo as a starter tandem, the 2012 and 2013 classes will need to produce a couple of starters.
3. Is Borges the Right O.C. for Michigan, and how valid are the persistent complaints about his playcalling/gameplanning?
Upchurch – from last year obviously
I had a minor freak-out when Brian mentioned in yesterday's game column that we won't know if Borges is any good for four years, by which time the guys recruited by this staff should all be old enough to buy beer. A Mattison-level coordinator for offense (of which Rodriguez is one) shouldn't need that kind of time because he can build a decent unit out of mostly useful parts (if Threetsheridammit is what you have to run your spread offense you're f'ed—but note that even with that OL and those QBs the rushing YPC was equal to the best under Carr). At this point we know Borges is not among the five human beings on the planet who can plan and teach an offense like Mattison does D. That's okay.
We also know that any value to hiring a guy who would have worked well with the spread would have come in 2011 and 2012—changing course again now would be counterproductive. The transition cost is plain to see: Borges might be able to incorporate the plays from the spread into his offense, but he doesn't ascribe to the thinking behind it, and won't ever.
So far I've been playing the pro-Al advocate around here since Brian's been consistently finding criticisms, most having to do with the fusion cuisine with Denard, and Borges's consistent inability to take yards that defenses are giving him by alignment. Last year it was the bubble screen, this year it's that and not running when they've got five in the box versus Denard, and still lining up in I-form on 3rd downs, and…stuff.
Against Michigan State and before we thought he was needlessly conservative and lacked the ability to audible. There's been a lot of handoffs from a read-possible play that looked like they were just planned handoffs. The whole offense seems like a big grab-bag: lots of plays but no packaging, few if any constraints, and creeping predictability as the contents of this mélange are picked through and recognized.
I think a lot of the Borges-Brian fusion cuisine mishaps are due to a significant difference of philosophical opinion between the two of them. Cook's take on offense is very reactive. He sees the defense align a certain way and then do certain things that make them weak somewhere in order to pile on strength to where they believe the play will go. He sees nothing wrong with the defense dictating its own destruction. It's a spread philosophy, espoused by Rodriguez and Kelly and Leach and Chris Brown, and if you've been reading stuff about offense in the last 10 years you've necessarily digested this approach. You know what this is, and not just because someone was showing you how Northwestern outscored Drew Henson and co:
It's not Borges's approach. You can hear it clearly when he responds to questions about running into a stacked front with "I don't want to get into a chess game." What he means is he doesn't see offense as responsive to defense; he wants to be the dictator. You'll recognize this sentiment from the hubris of DeBord, but there is an important difference between DeBordian thinking and that of Borges. DeBord comes from a 1970s college football philosophy that's willing to run right into the teeth of an overreacting defense because his players are going to be so much better than the other guy's players. When Michigan had a two-star advantage over every one of those other guys and defenses didn't think to sell out with 8 men in the box, etc., this worked quite well. Nick Saban has that advantage—on any given down he can instruct Barrett Jones to throw your nose tackle like a ragdoll into the middle linebacker—and uses it quite effectively. When Michigan no longer had that advantage, running Hart behind Long and Kraus into a stacked front was a recipe for 3rd and 8.
Borges is a dictator but a realist. His way to keep defenses honest is not to punish them for misbehaving but to be so unpredictable that there's no use guessing. This is why the quarterback has to practice all week in order to be effective—it's not a system but a lot of different plays. On any given down with any given personnel group there's six possible alignments and 30 possible plays the defense has to be ready for.
It's not a 100% thing. Borges does use packages, for example the Denard-Jet last year or the Gallon-motion this year. Here you can see the defense, which was slanting playside, get caught with the wrong safety motioning with Gallon, taking himself out of the play and presenting an opportunity for huge yardage except Mealer completely lost his guy:
If Mealer gets that seal Lewan has reached the backside end, two blockers are about to eliminate the 2nd level, and then it's Smith with Toussaint lead-blocking into the secondary. This is with Bellomy in. It's a Borges RPS+2 turned into a big loss by 10-man football because Mealer couldn't execute a zone block. So it's not like these guys are going to always put up huge gains if only we can teach the OC to be a guy he's not. On the other hand, you can see the opportunity—the tackles have both gotten playside of dudes moving that way at the snap and you like our chances with Barnum and Omameh versus linebackers. The embers of the offense that smoked defenses in 2010 are still there, and while Tate Forcier isn't walking onto that field, you can see it's still capable of doing the things they were brought here to do. It's frustrating.
If it were up to me, I'd go with the reactive way. I'd especially go with reactive when the current offensive line was recruited to be quick enough and smart enough to react to the defense in their zones, not to be big and strong enough to force our will upon the point of attack. In the passing game, most of these guys can pick up a blitz or catch a stunt, however somebody's going to break down after a few seconds of one-on-one. And there's Denard, who inherently forces defenses to do unsound things that you can then punish them for.
I think this is what we're stuck with now. It's certainly not ideal, and I'm more wary about underperformance-due-to-coaching-miscues today than before I witnessed the Rodriguezian defenses. I wouldn't equate this offense minus Denard directly to the 2008 offense once bereft of Mallett, since Lewan, and even counting uninjured freshman Molk that interior line was not better than this one.
Next year the WHEEEEEE! is gone no matter what. There's Devin (expecting Shane Morris to show up wearing #7 and performing like the the next Henne-Leach is unrealistic) and the tackles (please God let Lewan stay) and some slots left over, and they'll be mixed in with redshirt freshman linemen and strapping young receivers and tight ends. If it ends up looking badly coached and anemic, that's when we can start wondering if Borges is the guy. Judged on what he's got versus what he knows, having just a few blunderous games maybe isn't so bad, no matter how frustrating it is to watch would-be matured spread tools used for backhoeing.