What Went Wrong: Michigan State

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan had its worst offensive performance of the year on Saturday. Whose fault is it? Not necessarily who you think.

We are taking a little bit different track this week.  In week's past we measured things like turnovers, third down conversions, and negative plays to look at all the points and scoring opportunities Michigan was leaving on the field.  I think we all know how this worked out against MSU.  Quickly now:

- 7 Sacks for -49 yards (four more TFLs for an additional -26 yards)

- 2 of 13 on third down.  I don't have the avg third down distance, but I assume it is bad.  I'd say that's a safe assumption.

- One turnover thrown at about the five yard line in a 10 point game in which Michigan was finally close enough to break through and maybe score.

So yes, in all the What Went Wrong categories we are so familiar with, Michigan failed repeatedly and disastrously in this game.

"FIRE COACH BORGES,." you say.

Well, not so fast.  I agree that Borges has had his share of issues in his tenure running Michigan's offense.  I'm just not entirely sure that this game is the one to use as exhibit A in the trial of public opinion on the fate of Al Borges.  I mean, the damage looks bad, but overall, Michigan got average performances out of its skill players and a fairly heroic effort by its defense.  The Wolverines had a solid day punting and only gave us seven yards per return on MSU's three return tires.  Plus, one turnover is the benchmark of success I set for this offense going into the game, and I still believe that was an impressive effort.

Basically, a lot of the team put Michigan in a good position to compete in this game, but the Wolverines failed not because of gameplan, but because it is nearly impossible to scheme around a defense that is able to disrupt the flow of your offense almost immediately.

Long story short, the offensive line was awful in this one, and that's what went wrong.

Don't believe me?  Have a look for yourself.

Double A-Gap Panic

On the second play of the game, Michigan sees this right after the ball is snapped.

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Michigan has five OLs and a tight end, plus Toussaint in the backfield — seven blockers.  The Wolverines are in trips to the wide side of the field.  Michigan State has four DL, two LB, and a corner/safety hanging out in the box.  You can immediately see that Michigan State is bringing both its linebackers screaming downhill, but they don't tip that pre snap.  This is about to get bad.

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There are three things to consider here, and they are numbered on the picture.

1. Bosch is already beat by his guy. Like, totally burnt crisp.

2. Those linebackers have put Michigan in a bad situation where Glasgow can only hope to pick up one player.  Michigan has seven blockers against six rushers here.  Everything should be fine, but it won't be.

3. The ball needs to be in Funchess's hand right now.  He is open in the slot.  I don't know if this is a failure of Borges to set up Gardner to make this quick read, or Gardner for just missing it, but jesus, man, get the ball out.

So, again, Michigan has seven blockers for six rushers. A numbers advantage is fine.  How does that work out?

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Not good.  Michael Schofield (1) has held up relatively well against Shalique Calhoun, but that doesn't matter because (2) Bosch is now in full on chase mode and (3) Fitz Toussaint had to pick up the second of the two blitzing linebackers and hasn't succeeded in even slowing Denicos Allen down.  You can see at the green FG line that Glasgow at least held up Bullough (so we've got that going for us).

Gardner turns tail and runs, and on this one he at least throws the ball away.  Michigan came in with an advantage in the number of blockers, and couldn't execute on an A-Gap blitz that everybody and their mother knew MSU would use in this game.

Who screwed up:

- A true freshman got beat bad on the line.

- Toussaint couldn't pick up the blitz.

- Gardner didn't get the ball to Funchess in the slight open window after the snap.

Michigan giving up ground on A-Gap blitzes was an issue all game.  This one was especially tough since MSU didn't tip it as they are wont to do by showing pressure before the snap.

Line Stunts

We are still on the first drive and Michigan has the ball just outside the red zone on second and 10.  Michigan is going to run play action.  It won't ever have a chance.  Here are two pictures, taken moments apart.  Tell me where the realization of doom is.  The set up:

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A second after:

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Shalique Calhoun is about to do bad, bad things to Devin Gardner.  Calhoun is looping around behind the DT and will be running right behid Graham Glasgow (61) through a pretty nice running lane.  Michael Schofield is going to try and chase Calhoun through Erik Magnuson's block.  That works out just about as well as you think it would.

Here we see one of the big issues that Borges had in this game: Michigan State didn't respect play action a whole lot, and when that happens Michigan sees a lot of pressure on longer developing plays.  Tell me, do you think Michigan would run the ball on second and 10 here?  No, probably not.  Everyone is rolling downhill to blow this up.  Now, Borges has been pulling out the world's least convincing play action plays for quite some time now.  Against most teams, that is fine.  Michigan State isn't most teams.

So this play is probably doomed from the outset as the play action turns Gardner's back to the line, takes longer to develop, and doesn't take advantage of this:

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That is a slot receiver releasing with a great chance to catch a five yard hitch or slant.  Now, I don't think that was in the play call, but in a game like this it would have been nice to see Michigan have a few quicker developing plays and outlets for Gardner for when Michigan State brought the house.  At least make MSU adjust to take this away.

However, you can already see doom above in that Schofield's decision to try and block a guy he has no chance at is going to let that linebacker scream off the edge untouched.  Meanwhile, Calhoun is going to run free into that gap.  I don't even have to show you the rest of this play and you already know it is a loss of yards.  Even if this were a handoff, it is dead to rights at this very moment.

The play call is an issue here, but so is the OL.  I have heard some complaints that youth gets thrown around too much as an excuse, and that this team isn't really that young.  This is true.  There are a lot of experienced players at the skill positions, and the tackles are multi-year starters.  However, you don't need a lot of young players to create issues.  You just need them at the wrong spots.  Across the middle of Michigan's OL in this game it has a true freshman making his first start, a walk-on redshirt sophomore in his eighth start (fourth at center), and a redshirt freshman tackle starting at guard.  That is a lot of inexperience, and it is all right in the heart of the offense.  Dealing with a line stunt like this while a blizter comes off the edge and you have a play action call on is hard enough, but when you have guys playing next to each other for all of a few weeks before seeing something like this, its even harder to deal with.

Problems:

- The line failed to pick up the stunt and blitzing LB.

- The play seemed doomed from the outset; it was too long developing when MSU was ready to send pressure on a pass.

- Young kids on the line gonna be young.

What No Pressure Means

Devin Gardner's statline was pretty underwhelming, but there are instances where he was able to throw the ball down field, and when that happened, he had some success with it.

Michigan's second drive starts with an Ace set, twins to the top of the field and a tight end to the bottom.  Funchess is stacked behind Gallon and slightly inside.  Michigan again runs play action.

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This time, MIchigan State's linebackers are flat footed (1) and consequently, Michigan's line can set up a nice pocket from which Gardner can look to get the ball downfield.  At the top of the screen, Gallon is the one getting bumped and Devin Funchess is running straight at the safety (2).  Funchess covered by a safety is a matchup you'll take eight days a week.  Funchess runs a shallow corner route, Gardner puts the ball up high, and Funchess just goes up and gets it even though it is slightly behind him.  It is a 25 yard gain.

This is how you beat Michigan State.  You find ways to complete passes down the field.  The corners are very good in coverage, but are often left alone on an island.  Same for the safeties in this cover-4 scheme that sees them sometimes in inopportune matchups against guys like Funchess.  Just because these guys are really good doesn't mean that they aren't susceptible to getting beat by good receivers in one-on-one situations.  This is what Michigan needed (and largely tried) to attack and couldn't because of pressure most of the day.

The issue in this game was that Michigan simply wasn't able to deliver this kind of pocket very often.   Michigan had early success because the Spartans held back pressure, but once it became apparent that sending extra attackers was almost guaranteed to get someone in Gardner's face, Pat Narduzzi brought more and more, giving Michigan less of an opportunity to set up and look to exploit mis-matches downfield.

Michigan State eats your bread and butter

The next play is a Michigan staple this year — the inverted veer.  Michigan down blocks with the line and brings Bosch around as a pulling guard.  There are two main issues with it.  First, Michigan has Devin Funchess as a blocker at the point of attack.  This ends predictably.

Second, and more importantly, Michigan State eats this one up.because it knows exactly what to do and Michigan doesn't block well.  If UM hits all its blocks, however, this one is probably a big gain.  Here is the play just after the snap.  There are three defenders relevant to this play.

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(1) is the defensive end who is blocked by virtue of the option action.  Gardner is reading him and deciding what to do with the ball.  If the DE crashes and gives up outside contain, Toussaint has a big play.  The second two defenders are the responsibility of the TE Funchess and the pulling guard.

Now, I'm sure SC will correct me on this if I'm mistaken, but my understanding of the blocking on this play is that Funchess is supposed to down block on defender #2 allowing Bosch to pull through the hole and lead on defender #3 for Gardner.  What actually happens?

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Funchess whiffs on his block on the #2 defender from above and Bosch turns to help rather than dealing with #3 who is ready to blow up the quarterback on a keep.  A true sophomore reputed to be a bad blocker and a true freshman both screw this play up and Michigan gives up what should be a very nice gain.  I mean...

Msu_10_medium

I can haz sad.  Block that guy and there is a lot of green space and one relevant open field block before a whole lot more.

If Funchess and Bosch execute this block, we are looking at a Chesson block (1) between this being cut down for 5 or so yards or picking up a lot more than a first down.

People get on Borges a lot for some of his play calls, but this was absolutely a good call that was set up to pick up a lot of yards if Michigan executed it correctly.  Youth up front caused two big mistakes and instead of going for a second straight big gain, Michigan loses yards.

Problems:

- Funchess is a TE only as a roster designation.  He has been playing outside for a reason.  This is a bad whiff.

- Bosch blows his assignment on the pull.

Other than that, this is a good call that should be a big gainer.

Michigan State was ready for Michigan's counters

The next two plays are both Michigan's staple constraint plays to try and catch teams over pursuing.  The first is a swing pass to the short side of the field to Fitz Toussaint.  It is gobbled up.

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Michigan State has two defenders that are reacting to the swing pass before the ball is even in Toussaint's hands.  Michigan has one blocker in the area, but he is in no way in position to make a decent block on even one of these guys.

The second is a throwback screen to Toussaint that is sniffed out and results in a sack when Gardner has nowhere to go with the ball.

Msu_11_medium

Michigan has its blocks set at the top of the screen, but Marcus Rush (1) has already figured out exactly what is going on and is sitting on it ready to make a play.

Neither of these are bad play calls per se.  The issue is that Michigan State is just too well prepared as a defense.  The Spartans read both of these plays almost immediately and set up in perfect position to make a play on the ball and cut both down quickly.  Al Borges had his change of pace plays in the bag ready to take advantage of Michigan State overreacting, but Michigan State quickly diagnosed what was going on with both plays and that was it.

The one thing that could be said of Borges is that he didn't properly set either of these up.  Michigan hadn't yet rolled the pocket to set up a screen and it hadn't tried to stretch the field with the tight end on the boundary side to set up the swing pass.  Just like last year when Borges liked to roll out the throwback screen to Gallon on the first drive and kept doing it even after it was scouted and became something that was immediately cut down, he seemed to jump the gun with these calls.  It is hard to beat MSU with plays like these.  It is even harder when those plays aren't set up properly to get MSU thinking one thing before they react to what is actually happening.

If you want to levy a complaint against Borges, it should be this:

Borges has a lot of nice plays, but they don't always seem to follow a logical progression that is able to take advantage of what the defense is doing — at least in the diabolical way that some offenses are capable of doing.  It is the difference between a boxer strategically setting his opponent up to fall for feint in one direction so that he can deliver a knockout blow and a boxer throwing haymaker after haymaker.  Sure, if the second guy lands a punch you're down for the count, but he hasn't done anything to walk you into your own demise.

Problems:

- MSU probably saw these plays on film.

- UM didn't do enough to set either up.

- I also don't think it helps to run them both back to back, but that's some serious armchair playcalling there.

Pocketless

Even when the line was picking up blocks and not giving MSU defenders a free run at Gardner, there was little to no pocket there in which he could operate.  Consider, the 3rd and 29 in the second quarter.  MSU is in its nickel defense with three down linemen, and showing blitz up the middle.  Michigan has Toussaint flanking Gardner in the shotgun and Funchess on the line as a tight end to the wide side of the field.  Michigan is going to pick up the blitz and get in front of everyone.  It isn't going to matter.  Presnap:

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The Spartans will stunt Ed Davis around the DT to try and get into the backfield.  Michigan will pick him up with Fitz Toussaint and both the tackles will wall off the DE's rushing upfield.

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Already we can see that MIchigan's front line has given up four yards straight up on a 3-on-3 bull rush by three Spartan defenders.  Toussaint is in good position to pick off the bigger Davis.  However, things continue to get worse.

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Gardner is seven yards deep and he has no where to step into his throw because Michigan's three interior linemen and Fitz Toussaint have given up all sorts of ground and failed to establish a front to the pocket.  Toussaint has the hardest job here trying to pick up Davis screaming full speed off the edge on a stunt, and if the three interior OL do their job it gives Gardner more chance to step around pressure from Davis and still have an opportunity to make a throw.  Instead, this is a sack that looks like a coverage sack in half the time because of how quickly the pocket collapses from the front back.

One of the complaints made about Gardner's performance in this game was that he refused to get rid of the ball.  I think that is valid, but you also have to consider that there were quite a few situations like this where the pocket crumbled around him despite his tackles holding up well.  The last thing you want to see from a quarterback is him try to do something with the ball in this much traffic which leads to a tipped pass/int or a fumble.  Again, this is a case of the offensive line simply failing to do what it needed to do to allow Gardner time to get the ball out to one of his receivers, and arguably even get the ball out at all.

--

There has been quite a bit of bellyaching about Borges for the last couple years, and I understand some of it.  He isn't the most inventive play caller, he tends to rely too much on what he wants to do and not what might necessarily work, and he doesn't do a good job setting opposing teams up for a counterpunch the same way that other offensive coordinators do (the grass is always greener, remember).

However, this game should go to show that an offenses's failings aren't as simple as failure at the top.  Michigan had some good play calls that failed because of a lack of execution.  It had some really effective constraint plays sniffed out by a talented defense.  And it suffered time and time again from breakdowns in communication and assignment football on the offensive line in pass and run blocking situations.  Michigan is working with a painfully young and inexperienced interior offensive line, and Michigan's tight ends are in a similar position.

If you want to build your case against Al Borges, I think you would be better served doing it with another game than this one.  He has a hand in Michigan's complete and utter failure to move the ball (forward — backwards was no problem), but there is a lot of blame to go around.

- The offensive line couldn't hold up against Michigan State's array of stunts and blitzes.

- The offensive line often failed to establish a pocket for Gardner to work from.

- Tight end blocking was once again an issue (especially with AJ Williams out).

- Some of Borges's play calls put the offense in a bad situation by virtue of being predictable or not well set up.

- Some good play calls were blown up by Michigan State just being well prepared.

In a game against Michigan State's defense, the Wolverines attempted 34 passes to just 19 runs.  Michigan repeatedly tried to work the ball deep where it had the best matchups, and the run game was used strictly as a change of pace.  This was the game plan you roll out if you want to attack Michigan State's defense.  Unfortunately, there were just too many breakdowns to do so.  Like I said in the preview, to beat a defense as good as Michigan State's, you have to play your best offensive game of the season.  Michigan played its worst up front.

Also, as a note: all these plays were taken from the first half, in which Pat Narduzzi figured out exactly what was working and what wasn't and tightened the noose accordingly after halftime.  Michigan had 58 yards of offense after the half.  Point against Borges there, I suppose.

I'm interested to hear what everyone else thinks after looking at some of these plays.  Am I crazy, or is this game not a good one for your "fire Borges" arguments?

Also, if you have any questions for Space Coyote as far as this game, or Michigan's offense under Borges, he will be doing a mailbag of sorts later in the week.  Drop the comments here.

(Big thanks to Space Coyote, whose presence here at MnB has really gone a long way towards allowing me to coherently understand and talk about these types of things, also to Brian Cook at MGoBlog, who is responsible for a lot of my X and O knowledge)

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