Michigan takes on the Falcons of Air Force this Saturday, and in an effort to better understand this strange option team from the MWC, we decided it would be best to talk to an expert. Jeremy Mauss of Mountain West Connection was kind enough to answer my questions about Air Force's roster turnover, offense, and chances at an upset.
Be sure to check out Mountain West Connection for more on the game.
Michigan just got waxed by Alabama and now most fans are looking at Air Force as a pretty easy game to right the ship and work out some kinks. Tell me why that line of thinking is wrong, and why you believe that this could be a trap game for Michigan.
I thought it could be a trap game even if Michigan had won. The reasoning is that Air Force's run option offense is very difficult to prepare for on just a single weeks notice, even more so if a team, such as Michigan, is not familiar with that style of play. Historically, Air Force has always been able to give teams with better athletes a scare due to their time consuming of their run-based offense. They hold the ball away from the opponent, and can pile up yards on the ground. The way Air Force could really make a team pay is if the defensive backs start cheating up against the run, and at that point a play action play will be called and a deep pass over the top to beat the defensive backs who inched forward to help on the run. To defend this Air Force offense each 11 players has an assignment, and the one time they break from their duties is when Air Force can break open a big play.
The first thing that struck me reading about Air Force for my preview was the lack of returning starters. Most football programs are heavily reliant on returning starters to keep the program producing at a certain level, and a low number is usually followed by growing pains. However, Air Force isn't a normal NCAA football program. Tell me what your take is on the low number of returning players and what that means for this team -- and the game against Michigan in particular.
Well, the amount of starters Air Force lost from 2011 to 2012 is more than the typical amount. However, you are correct that Air Force is not a normal program. More often then not, they can input a new player at a position and the drop off is minimal, if at all. The quarterback spot is a key area in this example, Connor Dietz is a first time starter but he is a senior. He has experience in games over the past few years, and it was really a close call over the past two years if Dietz was going to be the starter over Tim Jefferson. So, the quarterback spot is essentially going to see the same level of production as last year. The running game plays so many players that a backup running back or fullback would have seen a handful of carries in nearly every game, and the difference is that they are now upping the amount of playing time. Defensively is where this is more of an issue for Air Force. They lost Jon Davis and Anthony Wright, Jr., both who were all-conference players last year, and overall the secondary is green with just one returning starter. So if Michigan can get rolling in the passing game then they have a chance to blow open this game in their favor.
The triple-option offense was once king of the college ranks, but has been phased out in the past couple decades as both the running spread and the air-raid have taken over a great deal of college football. Lately, it is primarily the service academies that run the option offense. What is it about the option that makes the system attractive to a team like Air Force, and do you think having the option go underground has made it harder for teams to prepare for.
The main reason service academies use the triple-option or run-option offense is because of size restrictions. At least at the Air Force Academy there is a certain height and weight in order to gain admittance to the school. Which means that the offensive lineman are much smaller and a standard pro style offense with a fullback or I-formation would not be successful. Air Force will have smaller lineman, however that just means they are quicker which means there will be a lot of offensive lineman pulling to aid in an option play. With so few teams running it, that is why teams usually will struggle against that offense. It is so rare, and preparing for it on a week's notice is not impossibly, but it is very difficult. Plus, the odds that a scout team player can be as effective simulating the quarterback. They may have the speed, but pitching the ball and doing all the fakes is difficult to emulate.
The Michigan offense didn't look particularly inspiring last week, but the fact remains that the Wolverines return a solid, experienced offensive line and two 1000-yard rushers (Fitz Toussaint will be back this week after serving a one game suspension). How do you think Air Force matches up against the Wolverine offense, and is there an area that you think could swing things in the Falcons' favor?
Honestly I don't think Air Force matches up well at all against Michigan. The only area is that the Air Force defense has some speed and could beat a tackle off the edge to get to the backfield quickly with an end or outside linebacker, but that can not be relied upon every play. I would say the secondary since Denard Robinson is not the most accurate passer, but with Air Force breaking in new defensive backs any advantage, if they really had one, is gone especially with Fitz Toussaint back in the lineup for the Wolverines.
What Air Force needs to do is to attempt to keep Robinson in the pocket and make him throw the ball down field, and force long yardage situations. If they allow him to extend the play with his fee that just gives more time to the Michigan wide receivers to get open. Really the defense can not just give up big plays or touchdown drives, they need to limit Michigan to field goals.
Who are some of the playmakers on both sides of the ball that Michigan fans should be aware of?
On offense it is Connor Dietz who is the first-year starting quarterback. As mentioned above, he pushed Tim Jefferson to the brink over the past two season for that starting job. He is not the typically Air Force quarterback that can only run the ball in the option offense, but he is capable of throwing the ball well enough for teams to respect him in that area.
At running back there are a few players who stand out. Heading into their opener there was a three-man log jam at the top of the depth chart with no starter named. Cody Getz got the majority of the carries and rushed for 218 yards on just 12 carries, so he is a player to watch. Also, there is running back Wes Cobb, he is the teams leading returning rusher but was held back against Idaho State, and he is expected to see more carries on Saturday.
The fullback spot is a key position for the Falcons and they have Mike DeWitt. He may not get a ton of carries or yards, but he will be key in the option play. Air Force likes to run their option plays starting with a fake hand off to the fullback on a dive, and then take the play to the edge. Where DeWitt is valuable is when he actually gets the ball on the dive, because odds are that down lineman for the defense will get tired of butting heads with a player who never has the ball, and the one time the defender follows the quarterback, but the fullback gets the ball is where DeWitt can rattle off a big gain.
Linebacker Austin Niklas is one who gets after the ball carrier and last week he had 11 tackles and one for a loss. He has experience by seeing time in 24 games over the past two seasons. He is one of the faster players Air Force has and is all around the field as he can get to the backfield and drop in coverage. The defense is so young, and with their first game being at Idaho State makes it difficult to really know how good other defensive players are.
Prediction time. How do you think this game plays out; does Michigan jump out to a quick lead and never look back or do the Falcons make it interesting until -- or even pull the upset out -- late? What do you think the final score ends up being, or if you don't want to get nailed down to specific numbers, how many scores apart is the final score margin? Finally, what is your totally scientific percentage chance of an upset?
This game could go many, many ways. I would suspect that it will be close for a half as Michigan will be trying to figure out the run-option offense that Air Force runs. I think Air Force can get big chunks running the ball, and if they are able to do that and convert touchdowns instead of field goals then this will be a game down to the wire. I have seen too many times where Air Force gets in the red zone and their option becomes less effective and the settle for field goals. The key for Air Force is time of possession, if they can dominate that part of the game then they will be in it until the end.
One thing I am certain of is that Air Force will cover the 20-point spread that Vegas has rolled out. It is extremely rare that the Falcons get blown out. In the end I think that Michigan will be too much and win by about 10-14 points by pulling away in the fourth quarter.