Brady Hoke's chief goal for his team this season involves winning the Big Ten championship. Despite the Wolverines struggles in the non-conference, he's got an offensive coordinator who believes they can get that job done.
"I feel like we can win the Big Ten," Al Borges declared on Tuesday. "If we play like we're capable of playing, we can win the Big Ten. I think we're as good as anybody."
Borges, however, understands the big picture.
"But if we play like [at Notre Dame]," he added, "we can get beat by anybody.
"The kids feel the same way. There is a lot of parity in this conference, for a lot of reasons. If we go out and play like we're capable of playing, we can play with anybody in this conference. But if we play like we played last week, we can lose to anybody in this conference.
"It's a matter of shoring up the plays that are getting us beat. If we can shore that stuff up, I think we're fine."
Borges insisted the Wolverines aren't getting pushed around.
"We've got a few deals where we self-destructed, and not just in the turnovers," he said. "There are other issues. So much of it goes on the quarterback, but it isn't all the quarterback. We had some other issues, over and above."
Nor is Borges' belief that the Wolverines can compete in the league a wholly self-focused one, he said. He's looked around.
"It's watching the conference, and seeing how we're playing, how other people are playing," Borges noted. "I'm not making any bold predictions, now, but if we play like we're capable, we're as capable as anyone else to win this conference. I don't think that's an overstatement."
He's making sure he covers all his bases in trying to make Michigan's offense all it can be. During the bye week, Borges scrutinized every play this season, trying to figure out why the Wolverines have struggled more on the road, what plays were more successful in various situations, etc.
Certainly, the teams U-M has played away from Michigan Stadium are better than the ones it has faced at home, but the road struggles extend back to last season as well.
"I'm never sure exactly what to make of it," Borges said. "All I know is, look at the raw data. We're turning the ball over too much on the road - that's No. 1. What's our rushing statistics on the road? How is the play-calling?
"I looked at that. These last two weeks, I took every game we played on the road, went over every tape, and looked at how I went about calling the offense on the road, as opposed to calling the offense [at home]. I took every single play we ran and evaluated it.
"Play-calling is an interesting deal. When you look at a play, you look at the play and determine, is it over-defended or under-executed? You've got three categories."
Borges cited those categories as plays that should be successful, where the pieces are in place; those with a chance for success, but that require greater execution; and those where an offensive unit is working "uphill," because the play call wasn't the best for the defense deployed.
The U-M OC noted there are examples of each in any game Michigan plays.
"When you look at your play-calling, you've got to look at all that," Borges said. "You look at all those situations, how you did on the road, in home games.
"As a play-caller, believe me - as hard as the fans are on me, I'm about eight times harder on myself. If it's even close, I'll call it a No. 3 play, where we did not do a good job and I did not put them in a good situation.
"When we meet with the players, we'll go over even the plays that I didn't call well. In football, if you're honest with yourself, and you're honest with your team, the players don't just lose the game. Everybody loses the game, or everybody wins the game.
"You've got to show them, 'Okay, this is where I put you in a bad situation.' They trust you, because you're not always blaming them for the mistakes. It's our responsibility to get them to do what we want. Even when there are errors, it's still our responsibility.
"You've got to take that approach, although people, when things aren't going well, want to point to one thing all the time. It's very seldom one thing - it's generally a bunch of things."
The best situation for Denard Robinson, Borges stressed, is keeping him away from those scenarios that call for efforts above and beyond the percentages.
"Keep him out of as many third-and-longs as possible, although with the turnovers, there was only one in that situation [at Notre Dame]," Borges said. "He has been a pretty good third-down quarterback. If you look at our numbers over the last couple of years, we're around 47 [percent on third-down conversions] this year, and right around that last year. We were over 50 for a while.
"That was a lot because of him. He was making some throws, making some runs. But the third-and-sixes, the third-and-fours, those aren't all bad. Those are manageable third downs.
"But going forward, we've got to keep him out of those third-and-longs, where any quarterback, not just Denard, feels obligated to make something happen so the chains can move, particularly if the offense isn't moving well during a game. You feel every more obliged to do something in those situations."
• As far as Robinson's self-declared status as a "role player," Borges noted the declaration simply involves the quarterback's understanding of the big picture.
"The biggest thing about that is the mindset," Borges said. "He is the centerpiece, and he is going to be a huge part of our approach and our production. But we said when we came here, we didn't want him to be the whole thing. We didn't want him accounting for all of the offense.
"We wanted other people to be involved to help him. More than that, it would help our team. We tried our best to do that, although at times it hasn't worked out like we thought."
• Part of the team effort, Borges noted, has to involve redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint increasing his production. Toussaint has rushed for 150 yards in the three games in which he's appeared, less than the 170 he gained in the Purdue contest alone last year.
"He's got to be more and more of a factor," Borges said. "We've got him as more of a factor in this game, and we're hoping to do that the next game, to take the pressure off the quarterback. We're best here when the quarterback isn't the whole show. We're not as good when he's the whole show, particularly with regard to the running game."
• Borges will never take the stance that Robinson has improved as much as he's going to, the quarterbacks coach emphasized.
"I can't ever think that," he said. "If I think that, you might as well get somebody else to coach. I don't believe that. You've got to coach with the intent that you can make the kid better in every way shape and form, and I believe the kid can be better.
"He's not the first guy to throw four interceptions. We're going to continue to work on decision-making, and footwork, and all those kinds of things. Going into that game, we had a couple of [issues], but nothing that you could say, 'Oh, that's a step backwards.'
"Until this game, we looked like we were making some headway. We'll get back to it."
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