Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has stored a number of plays in his arsenal, gathered from his 25 years as a coordinator. He's starting to show more of them, and just in time for Big Ten play.
All of them, though, start with a capable quarterback. Denard Robinson struggled as a passer through four games - against Minnesota, though, he started showing signs of being the gunslinger he's been in practice.
"We worked on it pretty good, you know, and he took it to heart," Borges said. "He was stressing that he wasn't throwing the ball. He's a better passer [than he's shown]. Part of it was we had to get him some throws he could make early, and then he got in a rhythm and it was lights out. He was feeling good.
"His fundamentals were so much better, other than two throws. He had two throws, and those were pocket movement throws to his left where he didn't get turned very well, and part of that was protection oriented. But he got his screws in the ground pretty good and transferred through most of the throws and was pretty much on the money."
He showed great touch on a 28-yard pass to fullback Stephen Hopkins, and he rifled a few others.
"That's the key to passing," Borges said. "It's a finesse art … you've got to be able to drop them in, drill it, lay 'em out and throw it so that they catch and run with it."
And be put in positions to succeed. Borges turned another page in the playbook Saturday when he broke out a formation with sophomore Devin Gardner at quarterback with Robinson and two others in the backfield in a diamond formation, of sorts. Borges had talked with head coach Brady Hoke about the possibility out of spring, noting they had a weapon in Gardner just sitting on the bench.
Borges - not a fan of breaking a starter's rhythm for a series or two for another quarterback - had to find other ways to use Gardner. The result was what he rolled out against the Gophers.
"In Big Ten play we'll empty the drawer more as we go now," Borges said. "Our first four games we're learning the offense, and that's still not a done deal. We're a work in progress, but we're going to have our deals. They're not all going to work. Some are going to be good and some aren't, but that was just one of them."
One he picked up from the 1980s San Diego Chargers, featuring quarterback Dan Fouts but also a back in Buford Jordan capable of running an offense.
"The other pieces we just built some stuff off they didn't do back then, but the option part was a piece from the past," Borges said.
"I've been doing this for 25 years. I've got an archive of football plays that go way, way back, even before I was coordinating. I think every coach has got it. I'm not unique. You keep things, and you pull them out as soon as you see something that maybe fits the personnel you have. You tap it and see what it looks like. Maybe it doesn't fit today's football - that was a long time ago. But maybe it does."
It's a delicate balance how much to practice and how much to use it, he said.
"You've got to justify it, and if you're going to use it, you've got to practice it. If you're going to practice it, you've got to use it," he said. "So we were going to use that in the opening plays, so I made sure it got called."
• There are many reasons to add new components to the offense, Borges said, beyond just a one-game experiment.
"You just give the defense so many things and try to explore the talents of certain players; try to give the defense another wrinkle, something else to think about, those types of things," he said. "It's not to be fancy or cute … I'm way past that. Twenty years ago I would have thought it was pretty neat, but today I'm just interested in winning. If we don't win, I'm not interested."
• Northwestern's defense is impressive on film, Borges noted. The Wildcats did give up 38 points in a recent loss to Illinois, but they go all out.
"They play as hard, if not harder, than anyone we play, and they play smart," he said. "They make very few mistakes.
"They find themselves in the right position a lot. Their scheme is sophisticated in itself, but not flamboyant, exotic blitzes and all that stuff. It fits what they do. Their defensive coordinator is an excellent football coach, and I've coached against him before. He puts them in good position."
• Counter plays and misdirection proved to be another effective way to take some pressure off Robinson Saturday. Minnesota's defense was burned a number of times when they keyed on the junior.
"We have a part of our offense within the scope of our offense where we have plays to exploit overplay, on Denard or any other player," Borges said. "But Denard tends to get the most overplay. They'll over-defend him, so you've got to have a portion of your schematic that is dedicated to defenses that want to overkill stopping him.
"Certainly, if I was coaching defense, I would lean that direction and make the offense left handed. Make somebody else beat you."