By Tony Gerdeman
The Michigan Wolverines walked away from Saturday's game against Air Force with a 31-25 victory, and were relieved to do so.
The difference in the game was just six points. It probably didn't have to be that way because the Falcons missed a short field goal early in the game and were stopped on a fake field goal later on in the third quarter.
Despite those miscues, Air Force still had the ball with 2:45 to play in the game.
It was a nightmare scenario for the Wolverines, and one that doesn't pay any dividends other than exposing your players to a pressure situation. Granted, that type of experience is nice to have, but it's not always worth the cost.
I was very opposed to Dave Brandon finalizing the Alabama deal, and I'm almost as opposed to him signing the Air Force game as well. This schedule wasn't brave, it was arrogant and ignorant, and the Wolverines were fortunate to come out of it with just one loss.
This game, against an option offense like Air Force, does nothing for the team. Had they lost, Brandon would have been 100% responsible for this team being 0-2 to start the season.
He followed up an impossible game against Alabama with an impossibly tricky game against the triple-option. That's a Football 101 no-no.
In 2009, Ohio State faced a similar situation when they played Navy one week before hosting USC, but at least Ohio State had the foresight to make it the season opener and allow extra time to prepare.
The Buckeyes managed to hold off Navy 31-27 when Brian Rolle returned the tying two-point conversion for two points of his own. The following week the Buckeyes lost at home to a USC team starting a freshman quarterback.
It looked like Ohio State coached and played scared in that game. Was it carry over from the way Navy moved the ball, or was it simply flashbacks from being drubbed 35-3 by USC the year before?
Freely scheduling teams who run the triple option is never a good idea. For one, if you come out of the game without any knee injuries on the defensive line, you are very lucky. For two, preparing for the option is like asking a sushi chef to cook you a steak well done. Sure he can do it, but he has to stop what he's normally doing, and what he's good at, so that he can deal with this one idiot outlier who never should have come to a sushi bar if it was actually a steak that he wanted in the first place.
Fortunately for Michigan, they do have Massachusetts coming up this week, which will allow the team to take a breather and rebuild some confidence.
Brady Hoke should have a clause that extends his contract one year for every time Brandon screws him over on the schedule like he did with the first two games of this season.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines put up 422 yards of total offense against the Air Force defense, which is nine fewer yards than Idaho State managed one week earlier.
Denard Robinson rushed for 218 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries and threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns on 14-25 passing. He also threw an interception on a tipped pass.
Robinson had touchdown runs of 79 and 58 yards, but on his other 18 carries he netted just 81 yards, good for a 4.5 yard per carry average.
Interestingly and predictably, one week after not running Robinson until the end of the first quarter, Robinson began this game with three straight runs, the second of which went 79 yards.
That 79-yard touchdown was a pretty nifty play. Robinson faked the handoff to Toussaint, then looked as if he was going to throw a quick screen out wide, then simply took off through the same hole that Toussaint went through, which was quite vacated by that time.
Seeing the way Robinson was used in this game only strengthens my belief that Al Borges simply didn't want him to have to run the ball against Alabama unless it was absolutely necessary.
There isn't much need to have that attitude any further, and now we're seeing Robinson back to being the most exciting player on the field.
Unfortunately, he has zero help on the ground right now. Fitzgerald Toussaint was the only other player to carry the ball and he finished with eight rushes for seven yards.
In fact, the Michigan running backs have now carried the ball 27 times this season for just 49 yards. Both numbers are absurdly low for what the Wolverines should be trotting out at tailback.
It's hard to get positive yards if there is no place to run. That's one of the major problems facing Michigan right now because the offensive line has not been performing well. It was expected against Alabama, but they should have been able to create more room against Air Force.
It looked to me like the Falcons were focused on stopping the run, and were willing to let Robinson beat them through the air. That happened a few times with true freshman tight end Devin Funchess, who looked like an All-Conference performer in just his second college game.
Funchess (6-4 229) finished with four catches for 106 yards and a 30-yard touchdown that saw him go up over a defender at the goal line and snatch the ball at its highest point for six.
He also had two receptions on wheel routes where he was lined up as a wing back behind another tight end. He would simply run by the linebacker defending him – at least I assume it was a linebacker. He was the first tight end in the game for Michigan, and I expect him to become a popular target in the passing game.
Devin Gardner finished with five receptions for 63 yards and caught his second touchdown of the season. His touchdown came on a simple out route from the seven-yard line that Air Force never bothered to defend.
Last week, Robinson was 1-8 on his passes to Gardner. This week he was much more successful, completing 5-8 to the former quarterback.
Four other receivers combined for five catches for 39 yards. Last week, they looked for ways to get Jeremy Gallon involved, but they only found him once against Air Force.
Robinson still made some questionable throws, including a pair from his own endzone following Air Force's failed fake field goal attempt.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Even though I said that this game didn't pay dividends, that's not entirely true because the defensive coaches made some decisions with regard to young players that seems to have paid off.
True freshman linebackers Joe Bolden and James Ross played significant minutes and they both made plays.
Bolden entered the game early in the second quarter and still finished second on the team with ten tackles. He played the middle and sent veteran Kenny Demens to the bench. Demens still came in for a series here and there, but if this was simply a test for Bolden, he seems to have done a pretty good job of answering the questions.
Ross wasn't in the game as much as Bolden was, but he was in there late, and he made some huge plays. He was involved in three tackles inside the redzone on the drive that ended in the fake field goal, and on fourth and three from the Michigan 43-yard line, he was there to tackle Cody Getz for no gain with under five minutes to play.
It wouldn't surprise me to see both playing more next week because Desmond Morgan and Demens have had their issues already this season.
I don't think the defense lost anything by going with Bolden over Demens, and I'm never going to be the one to say that Morgan needs to be on the field more.
There is a bright future at linebacker for Michigan, but the present is bright as well with strong side linebacker Jake Ryan. Ryan led the team with eleven tackles and looked like an All-Big Ten player doing it.
He essentially closed out Air Force's last gasps by himself, and did it from all kinds of different angles. On second down of the Falcons' last drive, Ryan lined up out wide over the slot and played perfect pass defense, breaking up the pass and nearly grabbing a pick six. On third down he lined up at defensive end and got into the backfield and tripped up Connor Dietz. On fourth down he rushed as a defensive end again and knocked the pass down as it was being thrown.
That was his most impressive succession of plays, but they were pretty indicative of his overall performance on the day. Ryan is looking like Michigan's first great linebacker since David Harris.
As a side note, Ryan's jersey number of 90 was switched to 47 in honor of Wolverine great Bennie Oosterbaan, who is one of Michigan's "Football Legends". The jersey switch was much more successful for Ryan than it has been for new #21 Roy Roundtree, who has three more catches this year than the guy wearing the #1 jersey.
Getting back to the defense, I was also impressed with William Campbell at defensive tackle. He showed good burst and quickness, stuffing the middle of the line quite a few times. He was called for holding twice, which was pretty unusual. Freshman tackle Ondre Pipkins also had some nice push a time or two.
Defensive lineman Jibreel Black also had some positive moments late in the game. In fact, he was in there at defensive end with Frank Clark late, and Craig Roh was on the bench.
One day I may know what it is that Craig Roh does best, but I haven't reached that day yet.
The secondary performed as well as they could, given the opponent. It's amazing to watch Air Force's second-level blocking, and seeing how the secondary had to deal with it.
There was one broken coverage that led to a 32-yard reception that should have been a touchdown, but receiver Ty Macarthur fell to the ground as he was catching the ball. In fact, I'm not sure the play can even be blamed on the secondary, because it looked like it should have been a linebacker in coverage.
Yes, Air Force rushed for 290 yards against Michigan, but it took them 71 carries to get there. That's barely four yards per carry, and against a triple-option team that you can't really simulate, that's not too bad.
The Falcons had more success outside than inside, which is a little bit of a positive given Michigan's soft middle last week.
Lastly, I have to say that it must be nice to be Air Force and be allowed to have multiple players moving at the snap. It must also be nice to have players who are allowed to be moving towards the line of scrimmage before the snap, especially when it leads to touchdowns like it did on Saturday. Did the NFL send replacement refs to this game?
The Special Teams
There aren't many things better to do on a Saturday afternoon than watch Dennis Norfleet return kickoffs. He's not always going in the right direction, but he is always going full tilt. It's like watching bumper cars in fast forward.
Following the Alabama game I said that he would return one for a touchdown, and I still expect that to happen. He returned three for 77 yards with a long of 36 against Air Force.
The rest of the special teams were fine, though Air Force did have kickoff returns of 34 and 30 yards, which is too much.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan's offense still has plenty of work to do if they are going to beat Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Of Michigan's 422 total yards, 243 of it came on six plays. That means on their other 50 plays, they moved the ball just 179 yards, or 3.6 yards per play. That's not good enough against a defense like Air Force's.
It also means that we have yet to see this defense against an offense on par with the Big Ten's varied offerings. Alabama's offensive line was far beyond what they will see the rest of the way, and Air Force's offense will be a distant memory by Tuesday.
What will this defense look like against an average offensive line with a mixed collection of skill talent? That is the real question.
Michigan's defense is now 117th in the nation against the rush, allowing 261 yards rushing per game. But facing the sixth-best offensive line in the NFL, and a team that runs the option as well as anybody oftentimes leads to big rushing numbers.
Michigan may rank 117th in the nation, but they are obviously much better than their numbers show.
However, if they are going to win the Legends Division, they can't hover in the 60th or 70th range. They need to prove that they can shut the opposing running game down.
If they don't do it next weekend, then it may be time to panic. Or celebrate, given your affiliation.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Michigan 31 - Air Force 26 (1-1)
Sept 15 Massachusetts
Sept 22 at Notre Dame
Sept 29 Bye
Oct 6 at Purdue
Oct 13 Illinois
Oct 20 Michigan State
Oct 27 at Nebraska
Nov 3 at Minnesota
Nov 10 Northwestern
Nov 17 Iowa
Nov 24 at Ohio State
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