Michigan 'Ask Kyle' questions answered: How can Al Borges defend not rushing Denard Robinson more?
There is fear and a whole lot of loathing going on in Ann Arbor this week.
At least, that's the case according to the responses for this week's mailbag, which come in the shadow of Michigan's meltdown against Alabama.
The most popular targets appear to be offensive coordinator Al Borges, for devising a game plan that got quarterback Denard Robinson only two first-half rushes; Robinson, for not passing well enough to open running lanes; and the receivers, who caught only eight passes.
But in a week like this, few have escaped the ire of Michigan fans.
On that wonderfully cheery note, to the mailbag:
Question: I understand Al Borges has to defend his game plan, but you're telling me after losing 41-14 he would not change one thing? If he really believes that, then he needs to eat a large piece of humble pie. -- John Pusta, Detroit
Answer: I sympathize for Borges, because his plan was logically sound. If Alabama went light in the box, he was going to rush Robinson and the tailbacks at it. If Alabama loaded the box to stop the run, he was going to pass over the top of it.
Alabama loaded the box with defenders who were bigger and faster than anyone Michigan had to offer (outside of Taylor Lewan, maybe). The offensive line was blown up. Where, exactly, was Robinson going to run?
So, he had to pass ... and Robinson didn't execute. That's where the breakdown occurred -- not so much in the game plan, but in the execution of that plan. Borges is the easy target (full disclosure: Even I targeted him in my grades after the game), but what about the guys charged with creating holes for Robinson (or the backs)?
It's misguided to direct anger at Borges. He was devising a plan to beat a defense that featured superior athletes, and knew rushing right into that defense -- when it was prepared for the rush -- was futile. He took what the defense gave him, and attacked the soft spot.
Robinson's arm and the receivers' hands deserve more criticism than Borges' game plan. If Michigan was hitting something -- anything -- in the passing game, it would have loosened up the box. But Robinson didn't hit, so Alabama could cheat more and more against the run. And Borges made the right call not forcing it.
Did he go too far in saying he wouldn't have done anything different? Probably, because his team scored only 14 points and struggled to move the ball. Of course there were things that could have been done differently -- and getting Robinson a few more carries is a must. That's when Michigan's at its best, and it can't be so easily taken out of its game. But Borges has received too much criticism for the offense's failings.
Question: What strategies can U-M employ to improve their running attack when the initial game plan does not seem to be working? -- HeartbreakM
Answer: Good question, HeartbreakM, and the answer is simple: Get the passing game flowing. The blueprint for stopping Robinson (and by extension, Michigan) has been spelled out several times. All defenses have to do is load the box, which takes away the run.
The risk of doing that is it opens passing lanes down the field. But Robinson has yet to show he can exploit those lanes consistently. He also becomes mistake prone when under duress, which means even if he strings together a pass or two, he'll make mistakes to nullify positive plays.
Michigan State, Illinois and Virginia Tech took away the run at all costs against Michigan last year, and Robinson was baffled by it. Alabama followed their lead and net similar results. Robinson will see those defenses again in the future, and the only way to beat them is to show he can make them pay with his arm.
Question: How does Michigan stop teams from just running at them all game long. I can see Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State all running the heck out of the ball and Michigan having trouble stopping them. -- Riddick24
Answer: Michigan needs to get push from its defensive line, and it's really as simple as that. The Wolverines were dominated up front defensively, which wasn't exactly surprising, considering they were breaking in three new starters against a front that featured four returning starters and three preseason All-Americans.
The good news for Michigan is its line is bound to improve. That happened last year, when each of the four defensive linemen made significant in-season strides, and the same can be expected of this year's front. U-M essentially has three defensive line coaches in Hoke, Mattison and Jerry Montgomery, which aids this process.
Question: How big a difference in talent do you see between the SEC and the Big
Ten, top to bottom? To me, the difference resembles that between the AFL
and the NFL in the mid-1960s. -- Paul Ruschmann
Answer: Michigan playing Alabama is like the JV playing the varsity. Maybe the JV has a playmaker or two -- guys that will come into their own at some point, but haven't yet -- but it gives up size and speed at pretty much every position. And that's what I saw Saturday.
I don't know enough about the rest of the SEC to extrapolate that mismatch to the rest of the league. But if Michigan indeed is a Legends Division heavyweight -- as is projected -- it's fair to say the talent in the two leagues, at least at the top, isn't in the same zip code.
Question: We used to use our tight ends under Lloyd Carr. Why aren’t we including them in our offense? Don’t our coaches watch the NFL to see how valuable they are to an offense? -- Brenda
Answer: Michigan coaches are moving toward a pro-style scheme, which prominently features the tight end. That's part of why you saw Hoke nab two really talented players -- A.J. Williams and Devin Funchess -- at that spot in the 2012 recruiting class. There are two more on the way in 2013, Jake Butt and Khalid Hill.
But it's going to take time to integrate them into the offense, particularly the passing game. Last year's top-two players, Kevin Koger and Steve Watson, are gone. Starter Brandon Moore has only two career catches, and now is done for the foreseeable future due to injury.
All that's left: Fifth-year senior Mike Kwiatkowski, who was a walk-on until last week, and the true freshmen Funchess and Williams. Borges loves tight ends, and you'll see them become a prominent part of the passing game. But it will take time, due to the gulf in the depth chart at the position.
Question: This team was overrated at No. 8. Can this team rebound and make an impact in the Big Ten? -- Dave Robinson
Answer: Alabama might be better than any other team in college football, and certainly is better than any other team in the Big Ten. So, it's hard to gauge much from that albatross, other than the fact Michigan isn't yet ready to compete for national championships.
But a Big Ten championship? Sure. I'd be most worried about Michigan State because, like the Crimson Tide, MSU is perfectly positioned to expose Michigan's weaknesses -- lack of depth and experience in the trenches. It also has the track record of four consecutive wins in the series, and it is 2-0 against Robinson.
Otherwise, the Alabama loss doesn't say much about what Michigan will do in league play. It's just that much better than anyone the Wolverines will face in the Big Ten.
Question: I was wondering if you think Michigan will try to use more plays where they let Robinson roll out giving him the option to run or pass in the next few games? -- Mark Reister
Answer: This may seem counterintuitive, but Robinson actually is most effective in the pocket. There are couple reasons for this, the most obvious being that if he rolls out, it cuts the field in half. Robinson has struggled to find open receivers in the passing game, and with throwing into coverage. Cutting the field in half limits the quarterback's options, and with Robinson, that's an even bigger issue because he lacks the proper vision to find the open guy even when he has a full complement of options and checkdowns.
The other major reason why Robinson is more effective in the pocket is his mechanics are better there. Last year, he threw off his back foot or across body far more frequently when he was rolling out, two mechanical flaws that often led to picks.
Question: Why can’t our receivers get separation? is it the designated routes or poor coaching? -- Brenda
Answer: Playing against NFL-level cornerbacks such as Dee Milliner is one reason. The Michigan wideouts will look much better when they pick on someone their own size, so to speak.
Part of the problem, though, is Michigan's most experienced receivers -- Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon -- fit the profile of role players. Neither stands taller than 6-foot, although, to Gallon's credit, he consistently plays larger than that. He's Michigan's best receiver right now.
But Roundtree was expected to be Michigan's No. 1 option, yet can't shake top-level talent. I just don't think he's a true No. 1 -- a guy who can create for himself, who can beat defenses even when covered. His best work comes when someone else draws that attention, and he can find the crease in the coverage.
Devin Gardner is the X-factor. At 6-foot-4 with big-time hops, the former quarterback could be that No. 1 option. But we saw against Alabama that although he has the physical tools, he's far from being a polished receiver. He ran terrible routes, wrong routes and looked sort of silly even on his 44-yard touchdown.
I don't think a 360-degree spiral was drawn up in the playbook.
Bottom line: I think Michigan struggles to get separation because, right now, it lacks elite receivers. There are some nice pieces, but no true playmaker. That group is good enough to beat a lot of defenses, but will struggle against the best ones because they lack size, athleticism and playmaking ability.