Borges goes deep in playbook
Wolverines trot out new formations, newly accurate quarterback, extra quarterback
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Vincent Smith grabbed his blue Michigan jersey just above his number and started to pop it a little bit.
"Call it two," Smith said. "Call it two."
In this case, though, "two" isn't referring to Michigan's small, shifty running back. Instead, it is the Wolverines' newest offensive wrinkle -- one widely anticipated since Denard Robinson first displayed his running ability in 2009 -- with Robinson lining up as a running back. In this case, with Devin Gardner at quarterback with two other halfbacks in the game as well.
Two of everything, indeed.
No. 19 Michigan ran the package four times during its 58-0 annihilation of Minnesota, a wishbone look that was something the Wolverines haven't unleashed this season. It's the second consecutive week Michigan has unveiled a new formation -- last week it was Robinson running the option with Smith -- but this week was something different.
This formation opens up many, many possibilities.
"We've been doing it in practice," Robinson said. "We were working on it. Coach said he was going to throw it at us and just be ready.
"He called it, so we were ready."
The formation essentially looks like a wishbone, with Gardner under center and three running backs -- one of whom is Robinson -- behind him. It is spaced out where the four combined almost look like a diamond in the backfield.
While the formation was merely one large addition in Michigan's ever-expanding offensive repertoire, it was something Brady Hoke and his new coaching staff envisioned in March or April, a couple of months after arriving on campus.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges always has been an innovator -- he started scribbling plays on pieces of paper in his parents' California home while in high school -- but this was still something new. He mentioned it to Hoke in the spring, Michigan worked on it in the fall, and the Wolverines unveiled it as Big Ten play started.
"You work on it during fall camp, and you put it to bed a little bit," Hoke said. "But you work on it so the kids have a knowledge of it so when you bring it back out. We thought it was a good time to bring it back out."
This came in a week where Borges said one of his goals was to make Robinson, who had completed 48.6 percent of his passes entering Saturday, more comfortable and in better position to throw the ball.
It had been the biggest concern for Michigan entering Big Ten play. If the league opener is any indication, Michigan has solved that problem, at least temporarily. Robinson was 15-of-19 for 169 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against a hapless Minnesota secondary, all while playing with a wrap on his right forearm for a shot he had for a "boo-boo" suffered last week.
He completed his first 11 passes and also ran for 51 yards Saturday -- the first time this season his running was mostly an afterthought.
Borges accomplished this by calling short passes -- slants and screens and hitches -- for Robinson early to help him find a rhythm.
Those plays, like everything else Borges called Saturday, were a gorgeous display of how to exploit a defense. And it might not be the end of it.
Hoke hinted Borges' creative, innovative formation-drawing and play-calling might appear again. So did Robinson and Gardner.
Out of this specific package, it means Michigan will have two players on the field who can throw -- the Wolverines tried this with a double pass where Gardner handed off to Robinson going right and Robinson threw left, back to Gardner. It didn't work, because receiver Roy Roundtree was covered, but it was one of the many, many new options available in a Michigan offense that's reminiscent of a video game.
What could those be? What else does Borges have planned? Michigan wouldn't give that away. Stay tuned.
"I don't know. It's Big Ten play now," Gardner said. "So we'll just have to wait and see."
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
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