Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges knows the challenge that's coming. The Wolverines got a taste of it in the first three quarters of their nighttime showdown with the Irish a year ago, and this could prove just as tough.
Borges insists the Wolverines are going to have to complete passes early against a Notre Dame defense that shut Michigan State down in East Lansing, limiting the Spartans to just three points. U-M experienced some of that shutdown, prior to a furious fourth-quarter rally that lifted it to a 35-31 win in 2011.
"They were so keenly aware of what Denard [Robinson] had done a year ago," Borges recalled. "They restructured their defense to kind of stop him and force the issue with the passing game. Early on, we just weren't completing very many.
"We made a couple of adjustments at halftime with our running game that helped us a little bit. They played good, too. They came out ready to play. We were still so unpolished at that time. We did not play at all well, and they played well."
Backing off the defense moves to the top of the list in South Bend - or more accurately, stays at the top.
"That's the key to any game, with our quarterback particularly, because of his running ability," Borges said. "If you look at the last two games, what's the difference from the first game? Well, obviously the opponents weren't as good as Alabama, but if you just look from a production standpoint, the passing game is better, hence the entire offense is better."
Robinson put 502 total yards on the Irish two years ago in Notre Dame Stadium, but it stands to reason the home team will be much more structured to contain him this time around.
"They're going to respect him running first," Borges asserted. "That's the theme of every defense. If you talk to any defensive coordinator, there aren't many guys who will tell you, 'Oh, we've got to stop the pass.' How many guys have told you that?
"Now, they've got to stop the pass. It's not that they're not aware of it. But it all starts with the ability to stop the run, just like offensively it all starts - in our offense, anyway - with the ability to run the football. Other offenses, that's not always the case, but in our offense it is.
"Then it goes back to what Brady [Hoke] always talks about - that war in the trenches, that usually dictates whether you win or lose."
Robinson has been virtually unstoppable against Notre Dame, when it counted most. Michigan's offensive coordinator isn't counting on that being the case on Saturday, but obviously hoping for it.
"Well, we'll find out," he said. "We'll find out. I can't answer that right now. I know they're good. They certainly looked good last week against Michigan State, and they looked good against us last year. We've got to come in with a good plan, and know they're going to be formidable and do all things right."
Whereas the Irish will be better deployed to constrain him, Robinson has raised his game in some ways as well, Borges pointed out. Despite Michigan's rocky start to the season against Alabama, the OC has witnessed significant strides in the senior's overall game.
That starts, Borges said, with Robinson's passing game.
"He threw an interception last game, but really, he just threw the ball behind him a little bit," Borges said. "The guy was actually open, and it wasn't a bad decision. He probably should have gotten a little more depth, and bought himself a little more depth so he could step and make the throw.
"How many balls have you seen him throw off his back foot in three games, where he's lunging backwards, tossing the ball into the middle of the secondary? Now, he didn't do that all the time last year, but he did it some. They were usually catastrophic.
"He doesn't do that near as much. I'm knocking on wood. I never assume anything. But his footwork is like night and day. He's pulling balls down now, working up underneath the pocket and taking off or buying beats.
"He had a play during the [UMass] game against a zero blitz, where he got underneath the rush, gave Vince [Smith] a chance to chip off a blitzing linebacker, and threw the ball to Devin [Gardner] for a touchdown. A year ago, he'd had run backwards, and they'd have chased him for about an hour, and he'd probably have ended up throwing it out of bounds.
"He understands better what to do. He's posing a threat as a runner more, even within our passing game, which is always good for him. He's a lot better - a lot better, and he understands so much better.
"You had to be there in last year's dynamic as opposed to this year's dynamic, and be in the film room and listen to the feedback you get. It's a different kid. I think you'll see more and more of that as we go."
Michigan will need to see more of it, Borges cautioned, because it will see countless defensive looks that dare Robinson to be better through the air.
Notre Dame will put forth that barricade, and the senior U-M quarterback will have to throw over the top of it to begin creating cracks in it. That won't change as the season goes along, Borges acknowledged.
"It becomes kind of a challenge," he said. "Some teams are more extreme than others. All of them come in with the philosophy that they're going to make him throw to beat them. Most defenses will do that, with a good quarterback.
"They'll say, we're going to make this kid pass to beat us, because we're not going to get beat running the ball. Some guys go to extremes with it. They'll plays as many as eight, nine, 10 guys up there sometimes.
"It becomes a little bit of a rallying point for our team and for him. We say, okay, that's the challenge, and this is what we have to do to win the game.
"The one thing you never want to do is completely abandon the concept of running, just because they're all up there. You've still got to run some. It just may be a lot tougher at times, and you'd better have the counter-punch that makes the defense play a little looser - and you'd better execute that counter-punch.
"If you don't execute that counter-punch, they're going to take one step closer. Every time you miss a pass, every time you throw an incompletion, the safeties get a little tighter, and a little more footloose and fancy free. They say, 'They can't beat us. Why not play the line?' It becomes a challenge, and we've got to meet that challenge."
"It's not going to be just this week. It will be every week. Every week we play, it's the same thing."
• Redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan insisted yesterday that the Wolverines need to present an angrier offensive line in the coming weeks. Borges didn't argue the point.
"There is something to that," he said. "I think, though, playing with passion and playing with passion together [is important]. With offensive line, there is just so much. Five guys have to work in concert with each other, and know what each other is doing.
"We're getting better that way too. We are. We've improved that part of our game here in the last couple of weeks."
"We'll see if we can take the next step, because these guys [the Irish] are certainly going to be a test. They've got a really strong front seven, and it won't be easy. We'll see where we are."
Borges noted head coach Brady Hoke is building temperament among his team, running some tough, chippy practices.
"Brady is creating an environment in practice where we're getting more of that," Borges said. "We have very physical practices, even during game week. That's a demeanor and a mentality. You play angry if you practice angry.
"But don't expect them just to show up and be trained killers on game day. If their mindset isn't right during the week, that isn't going to happen."
• That offensive line has been better, in some respects, than the credit it has received, Borges noted. Opponents haven't managed much of a pass rush, and although the running backs haven't gained big yards, Robinson has piled up the gains.
"The pass protection has been pretty good," Borges said. "Has Denard been sacked, maybe one time? The pass protection has been pretty good, for the most part.
"For some reason, people don't give the offensive line credit for any time the quarterback runs with the ball, and I've never been able to figure that out. If the tailback doesn't run for 200 yards, the offensive line didn't play very well. It's hogwash.
"Other than the one time he scrambled and took off, that was very much improv. But we have designed quarterback runs where they're giving him openings to run the football. Just because it's not always the tailback running the ball, it doesn't mean the offensive line isn't playing better. They could play better, but the last couple of weeks, they've provided some opportunities for whoever to run the ball."
• Borges does want to get Michigan's tailbacks more involved and productive, and he expects that to happen.
"You'd like to balance it out," he said. "I've been saying that from the very beginning, knowing it's not always going to turn out that way. You'll see. Eventually there will be a game where Fitz [Toussaint] will get more yards, and Denard won't get as many. Then everybody will ask why Denard didn't get more.
"That's the way it works. He's going to run more in certain games, and gain more yards, and in certain games, it's going to be the other way.
"Some of it is their approach. If people really, really want to stop Denard, and have the ability to do it - they all want to stop him, but sometimes you simply don't have the ability to do it - you can. Alabama has the ability to do it.
"Then, you're going to have to have another dimension that attacks the defense. Ideally, we'd like them both to get 100 yards, and get 200 yards passing. I'd sleep really well. That just doesn't happen every week, and isn't going to."
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