Space Coyote: "Play calling put players in a position to succeed."

Submitted by stephenrjking on October 17th, 2013 at 1:22 PM…

Space Coyote brings a provocative play by play counter-assessment of Al's playcalls, and concludes with support of Al's overall game.

Personally, I think he's partially right: Al Borges used a lot more variety and counter work than people give him credit for, and given the weaknesses and strengths of the team, produced a gameplan that was good enough put Michigan up by ten in the fourth quarter.

When you have no OL and a QB that turns it over, your options are limited, and he worked with those options.

Where I hold Borges responsible? He's the offensive coordinator. He bears some responsibility for the line being bad in the first place. More significantly, he is the QB coach, and I don't have a lot of faith in him in that capacity. I wonder how much of Devin's TO trouble is coaching related.



October 17th, 2013 at 7:55 PM ^

That last drive took significant time off the clock and it would take some great play by Penn State to score the TD; unfortunately for us that's how it worked out. By definition the 42 yarder was 'a position to succeed'; if he makes the FG we win, we succeed. HOWEVER the 32 yarder was in a better position to succeed, and a 25 yarder would be even better than that. If Coach Borges had already predetermined he was going to kick the FG then why for the love of everything Maize and Blue did he not do his best to get closer?? The analysis Space Coyote makes on the possible mindset Coach Borgess had during the OT periods is logical but sometimes doing the logical thing is not the best thing; sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few; he should have ditched the philosophy and called the plays that best insured we would be in the BEST 'position  to succeed'.

While what occurred in Happy Valley is painful and frustrating, what is more worrisome is this myopic execution of tactics has occurred in the past; OSU 2012 is a fine example. It seems Coach Borgess loses sight that he is there to win the game using all avenues at his disposal versus just the ones he wants to use.


October 17th, 2013 at 2:19 PM ^

if you think no one would have complained had that fg been made i don't know what to say to you. since i know i would have complained, and i am pretty sure Brian would have to. Before the drive even started I said to those around me "just please don't be cowards now, do not rely on a college kicker" And that is exactly what we did. 

I didn't look both ways before crossing the street once and made it, i should probably use that strategy from now on. 


October 17th, 2013 at 3:08 PM ^

I don't think many people would have complained.  They may have complained about the 4th-quarter playcalling but not in OT.  The OT playcalling would have been considered acceptable because of Gibbons's reliability.  Despite what some are saying now, I don't remember many people complaining about the Sugar Bowl OT playcalling at the time.



coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 3:24 PM ^

Sorry did we try to center the ball at the Sugar Bowl? Toussaint ran that way but he was actually trying for yardage. Is Penn State's defense as good as Va Tech's was during 2011-12?

Almost everyone on this blog mocked Mark Richt mercilessly for centering the ball and kicking on third down a few years ago in the Outback Bowl. What we did against Penn State wasn't as bad, but it was close. 


October 17th, 2013 at 4:22 PM ^

You're of course entitled to complain about the playcalling in OT, but I don't think you should pretend it isn't monday morning quarterbacking.  Maybe you'd like to see him be more aggressive, and certainly with hindsight you would, but the strategy is, a priori, easily defensible. 

Like I said above, Mark Richt did the exact same thing against Tennessee in OT that we did against PSU, and then no one mocked him mercilessly because his kicker made the FG...

coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 6:08 PM ^

Because a victory papers over the cracks till its exposed in a game like this. When people do complain about bad strategy in a win (which is smart) people scream about how they should just be happy with the victory. 

One thing I like about this blog is that in a victory Brian will still point out the flaws of a winning game plan, despite the many people who will criticize him. 


October 17th, 2013 at 4:35 PM ^

I watched with started complaining before the second Toussant run--begging Borges, as indicated above, not to play for the 40 yard FG.  Plus I have contemporaneous twitter exchanges from other friends pleading as well.  I appreciate that you believe everyone is Monday-morning-quarterbacking.  They aren't.


October 17th, 2013 at 5:59 PM ^

but an ugly win is not JUST a win. it may be predictive of a loss in the future, if the reasons for the win being ugly aren't fixed in future games.

people have been complaining about borges for a while now, in wins and losses. and the playcalling that puts us in bad situations hasn't changed, so people will continue to complain. because people think it is predictive of doom in the future.


October 17th, 2013 at 10:08 PM ^

and we would have been thrilled if it had,  but I assure you we would still have been complaining,  as it was the wrong strategy--for that game and for what it porteds for the future.  And it only reinforced what we'd seen in most other big games--those delineated by Brian.  You somehow want to persist in the Monday-morning-quarterbacking argument.  We complained beforehand--we were proved justified in our fears.

Space Coyote

October 17th, 2013 at 2:04 PM ^

And it certainly was overstating the point a bit, but Gibbons hit one of that distance earlier and the game and just kicked one that was long enough for this range and was perfectly on line. Obviously gaining yards is a plus, but I don't think in this situation it was a must. 

Essentially, you take what you can get here and don't turn the ball over.


October 17th, 2013 at 2:45 PM ^

But that said, even five extra yards are huge, and running power has been shown time and again in this game to be as likely to move you backwards as forwards.

Forget about bubble screens/extended handoffs; Borges has shown he can generate some really easy throws that will pick up safe, positive yards. The pop pass/quick slant in the 2nd OT is a perfect example. I would consider that "playing it safe," and has a much much much higher probability of success.


October 17th, 2013 at 3:00 PM ^

Safe does not have to mean handoff to Fitz. Safe could mean a run/pass option rollout to DG. Or a screen. Or quick slants. Or shoot, how about a read option or inverted veer? Those were working too, and DG can actually make those reads correctly. You don't have a clock to worry about, the only thing you worry about is losing yards and turnovers. 

So while the RB handoffs are defensible in that they had an automatic FG opportunity, I would argue that they should have just attempted a FG on 1st and 10 if all they were going to do is hand the ball to Fitz for two useless carries before centering it.

It was like Hoke and Borges were suddenly paralyzed with fear that the ball would go to the other team. It makes no sense, honestly. 


October 17th, 2013 at 4:17 PM ^

That's the binary way of looking at it, but there are varying degrees.

Devin Gardner has16 INTs in 305 attempts for a rate of 5.2%. Fitz has 448 carries and although I can't find his career fumbles number, I'm 100% sure it isn't anywhere near 16.


October 17th, 2013 at 4:35 PM ^

But likewise, not all pass attempts are equal. If Penn State is going to give you one-on-one coverage with no help on seemingly every snap, the risks there are really, really low.

For example, if you let Jeremy Gallon (or god knows Devin Funchess) run a quick slant without a defender in the general vicinity, that pass just doesn't get picked off.


October 17th, 2013 at 4:49 PM ^

That's fair, but also keep in mind the sort of INTs Gardner has thrown probably more often than any are short throws. I agree the odds of the CB rolling up right before the snap to jump the throw are pretty low at that point, but still. You can still get a deflection, it can get ruled a fumble (correctly or incorrectly), etc. I think a hand off is still comparatively safe.


October 17th, 2013 at 4:49 PM ^

Hoke never coaches scared. He'll go for a 4th and 3 from midfield because it's the right thing, even though he'd catch crap if they failed. In this game, for the first time it seemed like the coaches called plays with the primary goal of mitigating risk.

Colloquially speaking, they coached scared in OT.


October 17th, 2013 at 8:45 PM ^

I also think it's easier to take chances when there's a sense that there's nothing to lose.  One of the writers for BSD (who may or may not represent the general feeling at PSU) outright stated after the game that he would have been nearly as happy and just as proud if Penn State had lost that game.  I don't know of anyone at Michigan feeling that way after the game.


October 17th, 2013 at 9:17 PM ^

O'Brien made a comment after the game to the effect that he thought his players were exhausted--"had already given everything they had" was I think how he put it-- and he wasn't sure they had another overtime in them so he knew he needed to end it there one way or the other.


October 17th, 2013 at 4:26 PM ^

You're better than this, man. Fitzy fumbles at a much lower clip than Gardner does. Add to that the fact that Gardner leads the world in interceptions.

And, although you don't believe it, Fitz could have popped a big run there, even with a stacked box and a bad line. Its very unlikely, but it is possible. Just like a turnover. These are the things that go into the making of decisions that can cost coaches their jobs.


October 17th, 2013 at 4:43 PM ^

that you can't simply eliminate the plays that might result in a turnover, because that leaves you with [null set].

Remember the first play of the 4th quarter of UTL 1? Hopkins slams into the line, fumbles the ball, and Denard scoops and scores. These things happen. Fitz fumbled against UConn going in from like the UConn 10. And let us never forget A-Train against Northwestern (/pours out a little liquor).

So statements like, "turning the ball over is a fireable offense" just don't hold water, because you can botch a snap on the safest play in the world and it wouldn't make it the coach's fault. You can throw a pick on a given pass and still have that pass be the right call 100% of the time. If, for example, you get Funchess isolated on a 5'3 corner with one arm, and every now and then the fade route gets tipped and picked off, but is there a universe in which you don't throw that ball?


October 17th, 2013 at 7:22 PM ^

He may not fumble, but he absorbs TFL like crazy. If Devin's turnover percentage is so scary that you won't even bother throwing it, the TFL percentage should have frightened you enough just to kick it on first down.


October 17th, 2013 at 3:50 PM ^

Same here. Especially after seeing a fg kicked perfectly on target, yet having it fall about 5-10 yards short of the uprights. It felt like playing for a touchdown was completely out of the question for the coaches if they didn't have to, and I can't understand that, either. They were kicking fgs, but it felt a lot like they were just punting in overtime.

Prince Lover

October 17th, 2013 at 2:53 PM ^

That sentence alone! Right there. Everyone hates Devin for his tos, everyone in any blogosphere who roots for UM posts endlessly about Devin's tos. Well guess what, as mad as everyone is about his unreliability, no one gets more furious as his coaches!! Why is it so hard to understand some of the conservatism?


October 17th, 2013 at 2:12 PM ^

I appreciate the individual analysis of plays and how it fits into the greater scheme of the game. The offense did put up enough points to win in regulation and PSU made some great plays of their own to make it to OT. The biggest problem I have is the mindset that thinks "if a kicker is good every other time, he should be good on the road in an overtime game against a team that has proven they are fighting tooth and nail to win". You typically see a team try to achieve at least one first down in overtime to get a more comfortable kick. Michigan basically achieved that once in four opportunities. You can say Borges was trying to get more yards on individual plays (i.e. the Butt missed pass), but when push came to shove, they chose (yes, chose) to accept @ 40 yard kicks. That is a recipe for disaster in college football and it has been proven time and time again over the years. There is no play with more variance for succes than putting the game on the line from 40 yards out with a college kicker now matter how good their statistics say they are during normal game time.  This is what I was most upset about. Put your player in the best position to succed. Don't rely on the player to succeed in difficult circumstances.

MI Expat NY

October 17th, 2013 at 2:31 PM ^

I'm with you.  I've seen too many parade of horrors from watching teams try and kick FGs in OT to think that the strategy should be anything besides get a first down.  If you want to settle for a fg then, fine.  Still not my preference, but a 25-32 yard attempt is far better than a 40 yard attempt.  The difference isn't "just a bonus."  

Blue Mike

October 17th, 2013 at 3:13 PM ^

Two things people seem to have forgotten about this 1OT field goal attempt:

1.  It appeared to be on-line.  It isn't like Gibbons shanked the thing terribly; there is a chance that it goes in, but...

2.  It was blocked.  By a dude with zero leaping ability.  With his armpit.  

Now maybe the extra yards everyone is moaning that we didn't get changes things drastically, but I'm not sure that field goal is good from 30 yards.  Or 15 yards (yes I know that isn't possible).  

While we gnash our teeth over whether or not Borges should have played for more yards before the kick and whether you should trust your experienced kicker to knock home a pretty straight-forward 40 yarder, let's keep these things in mind.  

Sometimes, the play just fails.

Space Coyote

October 17th, 2013 at 2:07 PM ^

But a pass when you don't need to isn't conservative. Three straight pass in OT4 and two straight going for the end zone in OT2 is aggressive. You're way over simplifying the point. I'm guessing you didn't actually read the whole post though and take any of the evidence I provided. I understand coming to a different conclusion, but not in that simplified of a sense.


October 17th, 2013 at 5:50 PM ^

doesn't seem to lead to that conclusion on the 1st and 3rd OT's though.

1st OT:

first play:  run. you liked the play call, it just didn't work great.

second play. run. i disagree with your analysis here. I thought running a play that would gain minimal yards at best would force our hand into being conservative on 3rd down. you said a gain of 2 was "pretty much exactly what Michigan was going for." I just disagree there.

third play: blah. you yourself said you didn't like it. to me, it was conservative, but necessitated by the last conservative play call.

If you think the play calling on that drive wasn't conservative...I just think we're at an impasse.

3rd OT:

first play:  run. you yourself are "not a huge fan of it." I would call it conservative.

second play:  pass. good play call. no way i can beef it in any way. but i don't think that play alone could define the drive as being aggresive, b/c...

third play:  run, up the gut from I-form. conservative. there are more aggressive run calls to be made.

I just don't see how you come to the conclusion that those two series were anything but conservative? 

I don't think people are mad at the 2nd and 4th OT's play calling. We didn't score b/c of execution and great D on the play against Butt, not b/c of bad play calling.


October 17th, 2013 at 2:34 PM ^

When you have the ball on the 25 and a FG wins, it absolutely is, and not just to Al Borges. I wouldn't be surprised if 95% of plays from that situation, from any team are runs.

When we needed a TD to put the pressure on PSU in the OTs where we were on offense first, we absolutely threw it and threw it often. But that doesn't fit into the narrative, so everyone conveniently forgets that.

coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 2:19 PM ^

Let me up front say that I think that Borges isn't as bad as a lot of people think he is and that calls for him to be fired are premature and that those conversations should only take place at the end of the season. 

That being said, I think that your evaluation is wrong on three out of five counts. 

On the last drive, with 3:10 left in the game and a 1st down on the opponents 28 yard line, you don't give the ball to Fitz three straight times. Toussaint had 19 carries for 25 yards at that point in the game. If your kicker is "money" from 40 yards, why would you put the ball in the hands of a player in a set of plays that has not been successful all season to achieve either the goal of A. kicking a "money" field goal or B. a first down? The answer is simple: You've gone too conservative because you're playing not to lose and thus I believe you're wrong. 

In the first overtime, anytime you nearly emulate Mark Richt in the 2012 Outback Bowl, you are calling too conservative of a game. Again, you have to understand something: Giving the ball to Toussaint in any circumstance, no matter what the play call, is conservative because you are calling this play with this knowledge A. It probably won't gain any yards and B. You have no faith in Devin Gardner to NOT turn the ball over. 

Finally, in the third overtime, again: Why are you giving the ball to Toussaint on any down? Why? For what purpose? (I'm not blaming Toussaint, I'm just saying its a completely pointless strategy if the goal is to gain yards). Especially third down! Why on earth is the ball not in Devin Gardner's hands?? Again, go back to my point on the first overtime. 


From a karma stand point, when we tried to win the game, we made our field goals. When we played not to lose, we didn't. THE FOOTBALL GODS ANSWER IS FINAL!!!


Space Coyote

October 17th, 2013 at 2:24 PM ^

If he fumbles, people claim that Borges put him in a position to fail because he knows he has bad ball security and PSU is going to try to force the TO. You can make a case to give it to DG, I'm not saying otherwise, but I don't think you can dismiss giving it to Fitz, especially when on the drive before that Fitz was starting to put together 2,3,4+ yard runs.

coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 2:27 PM ^

Exactly: Al Borges doesn't trust Devin Gardner (who gives him the best chance of accomplishing a game winning goal) so he goes extremely conservative by turning to a strategy that has yielded about a yard per play up to that point. 

Also, by your "what have you done for me lately" concept in regards to Fitz, Devin had played extremely well in the second half and hadn't turned the ball over. So....

Again: 19 carries, 25 yards. Maybe you could make a case for the first play being a Fitz run, but after that, you're just trying not to shit the bed rather than accomplishing the goals that might win you the game. 

coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 3:28 PM ^

You're avoiding the main point: When we needed something that would have put the game out of reach (shorter field goal in overtime, first down or short field goal on the second to last drive) Borges/Hoke took the ball out of Gardner's hands and gave it to Toussaint, which was a strategy that they knew would not improve our position to accomplish those goals. Thus the strategy was too conservative. 

You can try to cover this up with all the analysis you want, but it doesn't change those simple facts. 

coastal blue

October 17th, 2013 at 3:45 PM ^

That's not the argument. Gibbons should have made the 33 yarder. But at that point, he'd just missed two field goals to win the game, so instead of trying to get him a 27 yarder or something similar, we just slammed Toussaint up the middle on third and short. 

But you're right, I would have expected Gibbons to make it. I just would have also expected Michigan's staff to make it as easy on him as possible, which they again, chose not to do.