Week 2 Game Day Intel: Al Borges

This week we sit down for a one-on-one session with Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. The Wolverine assistant assesses his unit's opening week performance, discusses play-calling strategy, the team's offensive identity, and looks ahead to today's with Notre Dame.

Sam Webb: Coach, give me your overall impressions on how your offense performed last week.

Al Borges: “Well, I thought there were some really bright spots and we had some nice plays. We did some things really well; we did some typical first game stuff in that we had things that were unnecessary. We had a ball snapped that wasn’t snapped on time, we had a false start, and we had an illegal guy downfield… which none of that’s good and never should happen. But we had a few plays from guys that hadn’t played much that I think we can shore up easily enough. The biggest thing I think we have to make sure we take care of is the turnovers because that got us beat in five games last year. That was by far our biggest issue, so we’re going to try to shore that up a little bit, but I think for the first game it was a good start.”

Sam Webb: You mentioned turnovers. There were a couple interceptions in there by Devin. He talked about both of them… said he had a misread on the first and got hit on the second. It seemed like, from an outsider’s perspective, the kinds of mistakes that are easily correctible.

Al Borges: “Yeah, particularly the first one. He simply got fooled a little bit. He thought their nickel was blitzing, he didn’t.  (Devin) kind of committed to the throw too quick, and the guy ran underneath and made a nice play, to his credit. The second one was kind of tough duty. We were in a protection, and he got hit, and the ball kind of floated a little bit, and that’s going to happen occasionally. That’s a tough one sometimes for the quarterback to handle, but by the same token, as long as the decisions are good, that’s the biggest things are the decisions. The first one was not, ok, but the second one was dicey, so we’ll just take what we see and try to improve on it, and understand the play a little bit better, and not make the same mistake again.”

Sam Webb: You guys were multiple as far as your formation is concerned. It surprised a lot of people who aren’t around practice every day, they said ‘wow, we thought they were going to be this majority I-form team’, and you went out, and we saw pistol, we saw spread, we saw I-form, we saw everything. Is that a first game thing, where you’re just giving an overall look at the offense, or is that kind of a glimpse of what you expect to do all season?

Al Borges: “Well, it’s a starting point for what we want to do for the reason of the team. We’re a completely different offensive team now… very different even from how we ended a year ago.  Like I said before, that was a little bit of a starter set, those last five games… but we’re even different from there from where we left off with.  So yeah, we’re going to always try to be as moldable as we can formation-wise, and grouping-wise, and all those types of things; be as balanced as we can. You know, camouflage a lot of our looks and then sometimes not even bother to camouflage them… let’s just come out and come off the ball.  So the combination of physicality and finesse is always in our minds when we design a plan. “

Sam Webb: We saw some things… I mean, you guys ran that stretch play, that outside zone play, really well, and it seemed to really set up your waggle. That’s something we saw here quite prevalently in 1997. Is that just in Al Borges’ repertoire, or did you go back in the annals of Michigan history and pull some things out?

Al Borges: “That’s pretty much what we’ve done. Before I came here, and before – at other stops, we were very similar to what we’re doing right now. It’s common to our offense, but what we try to do as much as we can is try to play to the strength of the players. We now are more tailback based, so if you’re more tailback based you have to be more cognizant of having nice balanced inside and outside running. We were not an outside running team a year ago because we were in shotgun so much that most of our outside runs came from the cornerback position.  So now we’re more home position based, and by that I mean I-looks or offsets, or those types of things, and the stretch play is one of them. The power play is another one, the lead play’s another one. We have several different schemes that kind  of come off each other, and off those come play action passes, and on and on; so that’s what we’re trying to be, and hopefully we can take a step in that direction this week.”

Sam Webb: Notre Dame is a team with a very stout front. You faced them last year and the turnovers kind of bit you in the butt. I know it’s hard to look at last year’s game and not focus on that, but outside of turning over the football, what did you take away from that game? What did you see in that game as far as what was successful and what wasn’t?

Al Borges: “Well, you’re exactly right. It’s hard to watch the game, because I’ve watched the game several times, and not focus on the turnovers. That’s what killed us and that’s what beat us in every game we lost for the most part. Like I said, we’re talking and trying to coach as much of that out of our offense as we can. On the other hand, we watch some of the things we did and we had some opportunities. We had some nice plays in that game where we had chances, we got down there, and for whatever reason, we didn’t get it done. We felt like we were headed in the right direction, but again, so often when you’re killing drives with turnovers you never get the next call out.  So that happened in that game, and hopefully we can be a little more solid this time around. “

Sam Webb: As far as emphasis is concerned, we saw you very early in the game, get the ball in Dennis Norfleet’s hands. We know that you have a weapon in Devin Funchess.  Do you go into games saying ‘hey, I want to get this guy touches, I want to get that guy touches’, or is it just based on what the defense is going to give you on a given day?

Al Borges: “Well, that’s an all of the above answer, because yes, we do go into games thinking that we want to make sure our weapons touch the ball X amount of times. That’s critical to our thinking. By the same token, as the game progresses we make what we call battlefield decisions, which means there may be something that we planned on that isn’t quite going the way we thought it was so we have to have a plan B to deal with it.  So it may not go exactly how you want, but by the time the game is over, as long as you can get the calls, as long as you can get the first downs so that you can get another fresh set of down, and you can continue to call plays that accommodate getting the ball to your weapons, then your game plan should go as follows as you expected it to be.”

Sam Webb: How much do you script? I mean, some guys script the first series; some guys script the first X number of plays. Is that something that you do?

Al Borges: “Yeah, we’ll script from like 15 to 17 first and second down plays to open the game.  We won’t go exactly by it all the time. I mean, I might run five in a row right on the offensive script, then jump down to the eighth play, or to the tenth play, or whatever… and then go back.  But usually by the time, I would say middle of the second quarter, we’ve used pretty much all of those.  But all of our offense is kind of scripted. I mean, we have our opening plays, which are literally scripted.  But we have a series of third down calls that’s basically scripted based on what we’ve seen from the defense, and if that changes we can always change the calls, so to a degree… I wouldn’t say everything we decide, but about 70% of what we decide, we decide on Wednesday night when there’s not a lot of emotion in the game.  Then there’s another 30% now where you have to say ‘ok, this is what’s happening; this is how we have to shift gears’, but you don’t want to have a game plan and then all of a sudden because a couple series aren’t going well, abandon everything you’ve done just because of maybe bad play calling or bad execution, or a combination of the two. You still want to stick with what your plan was, but be ready and willing to adjust if it calls for that.”

Sam Webb: We saw the return of Fitzgerald Toussaint. He got the most carries in the game. We also saw your young freshmen get some opportunities. When you look back at their opening week performance, overall you guys had a good number, where you pleased with where things were, or were you left unsatisfied? Where are you in your satisfaction scale as far as the run game was concerned?

Al Borges: “My satisfaction scale is always in need, but like I said before, I think it was a good start. I still don’t think we’re where we need to be. We still have a few reads that we need to get better at. We still need to understand our blocking schemes a little bit better. But I thought Fitz did really well.  Had we kept Fitz in the game, Fitz would have had a big game, but he didn’t play that long, and what he did play he played well, and Derek had several carries, and we got a chance to see him go a little bit, and I think, from Derek’s perspective – and he’s probably tell you – he learned a little bit how to run in college football, because it’s different running in college football than it is in high school, because you can’t race to corner every time. You have to sometimes cut back against the defense, see the seams, and it’s a different deal. It’s different schemes, it’s different players, it’s faster players, but he did a nice job for the most part of having a feel for where to run and running hard.”

Sam Webb: I know he’s second on the depth chart, but how do things shake out – I know Brady mentioned that Drake was your second best guy in pass pro, so how do things shake up in passing situations? Do you go to a freshman in that situation, or do you lean on your veterans?

Al Borges: “Well, we still have some guys that are pretty well acclimated to our system, with Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, and those guys who can handle most of the protection and stuff. Also that being said, our freshmen still have to understand pass protection on early downs. There’s no rule against blitzing early downs, so they still have to understand – and as they get more and more into it.  I’ve learned this over time, when you have to play younger players, they get better at it as the season goes on because they’re tested more and they can get a better feel for it.  But right now we have guys I think that are just a little more attuned to what we’re doing that we would use in pure passing situations. “

Sam Webb: Notre Dame is very talented team, but when you lose a guy like Manti Te’o, that’s going to hurt you, but they bring a lot back on the defensive front, and they bring a lot of talent back in the rest of the defense. Talk to me about what you’ve seen from Notre Dame in one week’s worth of film.

Al Borges: “Well, first word that comes to mind when I look at their front is ‘stout’. They are very stout. Every guy in there is a thick guy that can play blocks, eat up blocks, free up their linebackers if they don’t make the play themselves. They’re really well versed in their scheme because they’ve been doing it for a while. I think they understand their defense, and that’s huge when your system’s intact and everyone’s playing on the same page, so I think running the football is going to be very challenging against them, but it’s not something that we just want to say ‘oh, they’re big and strong, we’re not going to be able to run the ball’. We’re never going to buy into that mentality. But by the same token, we better take a huge step technique-wise if we expect to run the ball on this team.”

Sam Webb: When you turned the football over last year, was the more attributable to the pressure they were able to put on you, or was it all about mistakes that your guys made?

Al Borges: “Well, both, really, because Denard I think on three of the interceptions, was hit. Now, quarterbacks get hit a lot.  That’s an occupational hazard, but it wasn’t like he stood there and made a horrible decision with his feet in the ground. He was hit on several – and we have to be more – as coaches, we have to be more conscious of the quarterback, too, and making sure you’re giving him every chance to see the throw. So we’re very conscious of that this year, but at the end of the day decision making in the passing game is going to determine so much of your fate.  So many of those decisions are made under pressure, so like I said, it is an occupational hazard. The quarterback is going to have to understand that there are times where he may have to cut his losses. Sometimes, he may have to pull the ball down, and if you use good judgment, I think we’ll be fine.”

Sam Webb: So it really boils down to taking care of the football, it sounds like is the theme of the entire discussion. The last one, and I think you just kind of answered it, a lot of people say when you have 360lbs. in the middle of a defense, that you run away from that.  It sounds like that’s not necessarily going to be the case for you. Not to ask you to give away game strategy, but it doesn’t sound like you’re going to be shying away from running anywhere along the line of scrimmage.

Al Borges: “Yeah, to think that you’re never going to run at them is absurd. Nobody’s every going to do that.  And to think that you’re always going to run away from a guy is ridiculous too. To think you’re going to run the ball outside all the time is not smart thinking.  And to think you’re going to run the ball on the inside is – I kind of get a kick out of listening to everybody – ‘they’re trying to run the ball outside of these guys, they’re too fast’. Well, you can’t run every ball inside!  Now you’re really tying your hands, so the even mix of running outside, inside, play passing to keep them honest, keeping the safeties off the line of scrimmage… if you can just be efficient and not necessarily ripping off 20 and 30 yard gains all the time.  But making the defense conscious of the fact that they must defend this phase of your game, then you can play really really well.  But to think that you’re going to do one thing and do it all the time against a good team, you’re crazy. That isn’t going to happen.  It’s never going to happen, and it’s not going to happen Saturday.”

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