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Michigan vs. Air Force Preview

Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE
Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

(19) Michigan vs. Air Force; 3:30pm September 8th; Ann Arbor, MI

Read the Enemy: Mountain West Connection

Fresh off a de-pantsing on prime time television, Michigan gets to walk into what looks like an easy game. Air Force is a service academy that doesn't have an offensive lineman that weighs over 260lbs. on its roster, returns almost no starters on either side of the ball, and is perenially an eight-win team in the MWC. Despite the loss to Alabama a week ago, most casual fans figure it to be easy going for Michigan on Saturday. Most would be wrong.

If ever there was a trap game on Michigan's schedule, it would be the one against a triple-option team the week after a game against a top-three opponent. Prepare yourself now for what is inevitably going to be a close call, and breathe a sigh of relief if this ends up being an easy four touchdown win -- because you know it could always be worse.

When Michigan Has The Ball

The good news is that the Michigan offense gets Fitzgerald Toussaint back after a one game suspension that saw him miss the Alabama opener. The bad news is that Denard Robinson largely looks like the same quarterback as last year, which is going to place a greater burden on the running game.

Now, this isn't to be overly critical of Denard. He is a solid quarterback with a defined skill set that is very much capable of big plays in both aspects of the offense. At the same time, the one thing that he lacks is consistency in the vertical passing game. This happens to be the one area that Al Borges pushes the hardest in the offense, and if Robinson can't do better here, the offense could stall. Robinson didn't have a lot of open windows against Alabama, but he also missed some throws that a quarterback needs to make consistently. Borges isn't going to stop calling these plays, so Robinson needs to settle down and make the throws with more regularity.

Raw numbers wise, Air Force has been very good against the pass the last three years, ranking in the top six and giving up around 150 yards per game. However, the Falcons don't face a lot of pass happy offenses and tend to bleed out a lot of yards on the ground (an average of 210 rush yards allowed per game the last two years). Air Force returns a pair of secondary players with starting experience in SS Brian Lindsay and CB Chris Miller. Those two will hold down starting jobs while junior Steffon Batts -- a reserve last year -- takes over the other CB role. At the other safety will be either Christian Spears of Anthony LaCoste. Neither of which has much experience.

This is not a fearsome secondary, but with a couple returning starters, it won't be a cakewalk for Denard Robinson either. The problems that plagued him in the first game could still be there. The key is going to be for Robinson to do a better job hitting his receivers down the field despite coverage. There isn't anyone on this roster capable of locking down Michigan's receivers like Dee Milliner. Robinson has to prove that he can find players in spite of defensive pressure.

Thankfully, some of the pressure should be off the passing game as Air Force doesn't line up nearly the same type of rushing defense that Alabama did last week. First, let's talk about size. Air Force runs a 3-4 defense predicated on getting penetration and corralling plays into the middle of the field; a strategy designed to relieve some of the stress from just not being very big as a unit. Cody Miller, the starting nose guard, is only 6'1, 260lbs, while ends Nick Fitzgerald (6'4, 265lbs.) and Joseph Champaign (6'1, 240lbs.) are practially linebackers. This will present Michigan's line with a different look than last week.

It should also help the Wolverines get hats on hats in the second level. All three inside linebacker contributors are seniors, but none have starting experience. Austin Niklas and Josh Kusan both get the nod now with James Chambers a reserve. Senior and lone returning starter, Alex Means is back and should be the best player on this defense. He is big (6'5, 240lbs,), disruptive (9.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks in 2011), and an all-MWC level player. Flanking him will be sophomore Jared Jones on the opposite side.

Not only is Air Force ravaged by graduation, but over the summer there were five players dismissed from the team including probably starters at FS (Anthony Wooding) and OLB (Jamil Cooks). Michigan meanwhile is coming into the game with its full offense on the field, an experienced offensive line, and one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the country.

While both Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith looked to be in too deep a week ago, this is the kind of game that you could expect to see both contribute in as the blocking should be more effective and the linebackers not nearly as NFL-ready.

The Outlook

The big question is how does Fitz look, and what kind of looks does Borges provide in the running game. A year ago when Michigan was at its best it used Fitz and Denard out of a lot of shotgun sets, relied on inverted veers and misdirection, and steered away from putting Robinson under center. While one would expect the under-center game to work fine for Michigan this time, it would be nice to see Borges go balls to the wall and really assert Michigan's advantage on the ground with a steady dose of his strongest base plays.

In the passing game, Robinson will most likely still make a few throws that cause you to shake your head, but with human coverage involved on Michigan's receivers, the windows for completions will be much easier to hit. This is the kind of game where one can imagine Devin Gardner really asserting himself -- and if he is able to put up good numbers as a raw receiver against a so-so defense, it will bode well for his future against better secondaries as he settles into the position more.

Regardless, Michigan should be able to move the ball on the ground without too much trouble, and that will open up more opportunities to pass for Robinson. Depending on how dialed in Al Borges' gameplan is, Michigan should be able to score at ease in this one.

Advantage: Michigan

When Air Force Has The Ball

There was a time when the triple-option offense was all the rage in college football. That time is long past, and the only teams that seem to use the classic college football offense are service academies and Georgia Tech.

That really is a shame, because option offenses when properly executed, are very very hard to stop. In fact, the top four rushing offenses in 2011: Army, Georgia Tech, Air Force, and Navy -- the only four that averaged 300 or more yards per game.

These days offenses are moving more toward different variations of option football. The zone-read base of plays is essentially an option offense focused on making the defense wrong every time, and when you add in the bubble screen read it becomes a true triple-option. Then there is the next step out to packaged play concepts that are option plays in that the quarterback distributes the ball based on what the defense does after the snap, but combine passing and running plays.

However, both of these owe their existence to the classic triple-option offense. The option isn't flashy. It doesn't depend on big plays or highlight reel touchdown runs. It depends on consistency. Execution of the same simple concepts play after play after play into a defense that knows exactly what is coming. The option, if properly executed, will pick up 3.5 yards per play, every play. It will bore you to sleep then beat you senseless.

And that's what this offense is, it isn't a one hit wonder, not a guillotine, though it can be. Its basic philosophy is to stab you with daggers in as many ways as possible, until you die. Slow or quick death, it matters not.

Air Force has its own take on the classic offensive scheme. This isn't the traditional wishbone attack, or even the flexbone formation that Georgia Tech runs. Air Force, as Bill Connelly states, "does not run a strict flexbone attack. They almost take a Mike Leach approach to the triple option. They run a small handful of base plays, but they will do so out of a multitude of different formations." Bill also includes this video of Air Force running all over Houston:

That is the Air Force option attack. Different looks that disguise the same basic offensive concepts (explained in depth here). There will be pitches and misdirection and dives up the B-gap for six or seven inexplicable yards. You will hate this offense by the end of Saturday's game, but god dammit, you'll respect it too.

The way you defend the option is as simple to explain as it is difficult to actually implement: do your job.

While size should be no concern for Michigan in this game, to a certain extent Air Force's offense relies on its lack of hulking linemen. This is an blocking system predicated on speed and agility, not raw power. The left side of the line returns from last year in Jason Kons (6'4, 260lbs.) and Jordan Eason (6'3, 260lbs.), with Eason making the move to RG. Stepping in to the opposite tackle spot is Alex Huskisson (6'6, 250lbs.) and in at left guard is Drew Kerber (6'3, 255lbs.). Michael Husar, the returing starter at center for Air Force, was injured midway through the first game of the season vs. Idaho State, and his loss could me a big advantage for the Wolverines.

This front five isn't very large, but in this system they don't have to be. The option offense isn't focused on sustaining blocks and reestablishing the line of scrimmage two or three yards down field. The Air Force offense simply wants to quickly get out on people and let the defense take itself out of the play by over pursuing or mixing up assignments. Last week Michigan's defensive line got ran over, this week it could very well happen that Michigan's D-line gets run around. It will all start with Quinton Washington (or Will Campbell if the Wolverines go small) at the one-tech. With Husar out, Michigan's man at the point of attack is going to have to clog up the middle to take away the dive component of the option. If BWC and Q can't deal with a steady stream of double teams, reach blocks, and cut blocks, the middle of the line will be open and it will put more stress on Michigan's interior linebackers -- something that didn't end well last week. If BWC or Q can consistently blow things up in the middle and get into the backfield quickly the triple option will become a double option.

(For more on Air Force's option and how to stop it check out this One Bronco Nation Under God post)

On the outside Michigan is going to have to do a much better job holding contain on the edges if it hopes to keep Air Force from breaking big plays. Jake Ryan and Brennan Beyer both struggled with this a year ago, and Frank Clark was downright bad at it when faced with the zone read. These WDEs and SLBs will have to play smart and stay home on their assignments. This isn't something you should be confident in. All three spent a large portion of 2011 making mistakes when it came to leverage and contain on the edges. Thankfully Jordan Kovacs will spend a lot of the game rolled up into the box, and should go back to being a sure-tackling machine on the edge.

Air Force's quarterback, Connor Deitz isn't totally new to the offense; he got time as a reserve in 2010 and a few snaps in 2011. The ground component of the quarterback position should be in good hands. Deitz is a good athlete and a capable runner. However, he doesn't look to be the passer that his predecessor, Tim Jefferson, was.

Lining up with Deitz in the backfield is some combination of Cody Getz, Wes Cobb, Jon Lee, and Mike DeWitt. The first three are all competing for time at tailback. Cobb returns as the most utilized of the backs from 2011 when he was fullback, but both Getz and Lee passed him on the depth chart in the fall. Getz, in game one against Idaho State, had the most production (17 carries, 219 yards). But in the Air Force option offense, all three will get at least a few carries a game. DeWitt is the primary option at the fullback spot, and led the team in rushing touchdowns a year ago.

These backs are all your typical option running backs. Not Heisman level dangerous, but skilled at reads, fakes, and finding creases in over-pursuing defenses. Michigan's interior linebackers, Kenny Demens, Joe Bolden, James Ross or Desmond Morgan are all goind to have to do a good job quickly flowing to the outside and dealing with blocks from Air Force's quick offensive line to provide run support.

On the outside Air Force could be without the injured Ty MacArthur who suffered what was thought to be a concussion last Saturday. The rest of the rotation on the outside will be Chris Jordan, Dontae Strickland, and Colton Huntsman. The main key for these receivers is blocking on the edges, and Michigan's corners are going to have to do a good job dealing with the relentless blocking in order to contain the pitchman and set the rest of the defense up to help with solid tackling from the middle of the field. JT Floyd has had some struggles with this in the past, and Courtney Avery has been primarily an underneath player not tasked with this kind of responsibility. Expect a few missed assignments here as the game goes on.

One of the reasons that the option has fallen out of favor in recent years is that other forms of option football (spread n shred) are more conducive to passing. However, Air Force isn't afraid to throw the ball. Last year's quarterback, Tim Jefferson, is gone -- and with him go better than average option quarterback passing skills (Jefferson put up a respectable 153.39 pass eff. rating a year ago while throwing for 1600 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions). The main issue here is the back seven not getting lulled to sleep by the run game and allowing long completions. Deitz isn't as skilled a passer as Jefferson, so Michigan will have to beat itself to get beat by the Falcon's passing game.

The Outlook

I don't know what you expect me to say here, but Air Force is going to score touchdowns against Michigan. How many touchdowns is going to come down to the Michigan defense's ability to prepare for a full game of option football in less than a week.

The lowest point totals Air Force put up a year ago were 17 and 19 points. The Falcons were 19th nationally in scoring offense in 2011 with 34 points per game. This is option football. It will score points, because it will consistently pick up a few yards a pop. The key to stopping the option is A) getting it behind the chains by making stops on first and second down B) guarding against big plays and C) forcing field goal instead of touchdowns.

Michigan's defensive abilities are very hard to read right now. The defensive line is all new and the first game was against essentially an NFL caliber offensive line. Michigan will have some success against Air Force, but don't expect a shutout as mistakes will happen. As long as Michigan can keep correcting those mistakes it should be fine in the long run.

Advantage: Even (Lean Air Force)

When Someone Is Kicking the Ball

The kickers seem about even. Parker Herrington handles kicking duties for the Falcons, and he was first-team all-MWC last year. That was on 15 of 18 FG attempts with a long of 45 yards. Brendan Gibbons is Brendan Gibbons, and as long as he is thinking about brunette girls, Michigan is fine.

The big news is that Will Hagerup is once again Will Hagerup and not Will Hagerup. You know it is a bad game when people cite "punting" as one of the bright spots. Against Alabama Hagerup had six punts that averaged 51.6 yards, and finally looks to be back to his freshman season form. If Hagerup continues producing at this level it will be a huge advantage for Michigan in the field position game. Meanwhile, Air Force's punter is David Baska and his average of 40.8 a year ago is solid.

Neither of Air Force's returners, Cody Getz and Anthony LaCoste are known quantities, so Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Dennis Norfleet get the bump there.

Overall Michigan should be able to gain a slight advantage in special teams, but it doesn't look like Air Force is going to do anything particularly foolish or dangerous.

Advantage: Michigan


Troy Calhoun has been a very good coach for Air Force, and his option system is solid year in and year out, but this season will be a test of just how well Calhoun is at keeping his system effective under adverse conditions. Air Force loses a lot of talent from last year, and even in the last few months has lost even more to injuries and disciplinary actions. Meanwhile, Hoke and the rest of the Michigan staff have to deal with a lack of quality depth along both lines, and only have a week to prepare the team to defend the Air Force option offense.

Hoke and Calhoun do have a history from Hoke's time at SDSU. Air Force beat the Aztecs in 2009, but Hoke returned the favor the next year.

This matchup is going to come down to the Michigan coaching staff's ability to gameplan in one week against the Air Force coaching staff's ability to bring along an inexperienced roster in a system that thrives on repetition. Michigan takes it (unless Borges goes all I-form for 3/4 of the game).

Advantage: Michigan

Other Stuff

Key Matchups to Watch:

  • LBs and WDEs vs. the correct defensive reads - Morgan, Ryan, Beyer, Clark, and Demens have all shown at times an inability to do the right thing in run support on the edges. Air Force is a team that thrives on this kind of matchup on the edges. If these players struggle, it will be a long day for Michigan.
  • Denard Robinson vs. intermediate throws - Robinson can hit the short stuff and has the arm to go deep, but Al Borges is going to most likely keep rolling with a lot of intermediate routes that were subject to stifling coverage by Alabama. If Robinson can't settle down and hit his receivers, Michigan isn't going to have the kind of runaway day on offense that turns trap games into blowouts.
  • BWC and Q vs. Air Force's interior offensive line - If these two can't do damage against this smaller Air Force offensive line, get ready for a long, long fall.
Alternate Programming: Indiana will be taking on UMass in a preview of Michigan's week three opponent while Purdue faces off against Notre Dame. If you want entertaining games for commercial breaks, check out Florida vs. Texas A&M for some billboard justice or Iowa vs. Iowa State for some good ol' fashioned hate.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 8. A game against an option team with a bunch of freshmen and sophomore at linebacker and on the edges? Yeah, I'm probably going to slam the remote against the wall once or twice.

Final Prediction:

- Denard doesn't run nearly as much as any of us want him to, but he does score a rushing touchdown with a pair of passing touchdowns.

- He still throws an interception.

- Air Force goes over 300 rushing yards on the day but doesn't break 100 passing.

- Air Force consistently moves the ball in the first half and the game is within one score, but Michigan's defense does a better job in the second half and the Falcons only score once in the final two quarters.

- This is still good enough for over 25 points.

- Fitz has a solid game back with just over 100 yards and a touchdown.

- Michigan survives a close one with two scores in the fourth quarter: 38 - 27