Playing one of the service academies is always a complicated affair. Overall, scheduling games against Army, Navy, and Air Force brings a patriotic fervor to the Big House and camaraderie between the teams that is typically absent in football. The Michigan faithful cheer for the Wolverines but not against our armed forces. These games also usually feature a fantastic air show before kickoff, which perfects a football game in Ann Arbor on a hot September afternoon.
But even with these unique qualities of playing service academies, scheduling games against these schools, particularly Air Force, does force the Wolverines to face a deeply dreaded scheme in college football: the triple option. Players on the Air Force football team are cadets at the Academy, so they are therefore still held to the height and weight requirements of members of the United States Air Force. This demand puts the football team at a significant disadvantage in size compared to other Power Five programs. The triple option is the ideal scheme to close this gap by utilizing speed, misdirection, and cut blocks.
Going against spread-out and complex running offenses has been a point of trouble for Wolverine defenses lately. When U-M last faced Air Force in 2012, the Falcons gained nearly 300 rushing yards against Michigan. This fact alone should make Michigan fans at least a bit nervous heading into the game today. However, there is an even more troubling reason to worry about playing Air Force: the triple option’s blocking scheme. The cut block counterbalances the difference in size between teams by knocking out a defensive player’s legs at the knee, instead of engaging them at the upper body where height and strength are primary factors of success. While effective, the cut block is a major injury hazard for opposing defenses. More than anything, we should be hoping for an injury-free football game today.
The basic triple option scheme is shown in this picture:
Every play, the offense has three options of where the ball can go: quarterback keeper, handoff to a runner up the middle, or toss to the tail back on a sweep. Air Force adds its own aspects to this offensive package, in the form of shuffle passes to the fullback after a fake handoff, screens to the outside, or swing passes to disguised wide receivers. The whole strategy is to take advantage of overcommitted defenses that are blitzing heavily or swarming to the football. To beat the triple option, a defense needs to always contain the outside edge, be patient, and not sacrifice coverage of a potential ball carrier to help on a tackle.
Due to all of these factors, the Michigan defense has been training for Air Force’s triple option since spring. Combine this preparation with the speed of our defense and Coach Don Brown’s ingenuity, and the Michigan fan base does not have much to worry about today. Moreover, the Air Force defense is not equipped to hold back our offense for four quarters. There will be big plays by the Falcons on offense, and this will be a great test for our defense, but Michigan still wins handily. My final score prediction:
Michigan wins 35-14
And here are four Wolverines to watch today as U-M takes on the Air Force Falcons:
Devin Bush Jr. (10): Speed and composure will be the keys to the game for the Michigan defense. Middle linebacker Devin Bush Jr. has exhibited both throughout the season thus far.
Against Air Force, Bush will most likely act as the quarterback spy, meaning he needs to know where on the field the Falcons’ quarterback, Arion Worthman (2), is at all times. It will be his responsibility to cover Worthman in case he makes a fake handoff to disguise a quarterback keep or quick pass. Additionally, Bush will have a significant impact in defending against runs up the middle. And with his speed to the sideline, Bush will also likely tally a few tackles in the flats after a screen or a pitch.
Devin Bush Jr. will be the most important player on Michigan’s defense today in dissecting the play and stopping the triple option, and this is the exact game opportunity he has been waiting for.
Khaleke Hudson (7): Another member of the linebacker core who is poised to have an impactful game is viper Khaleke Hudson. Throughout the season thus far, Hudson has had some trouble in coverage while excelling against the run and in pass rush. Today, Hudson’s primary job will be to maintain the edge and thereby force running plays back inside.
His predecessor at the viper position, Jabrill Peppers, was excellent at disrupting screens and sweeps to the outside. Against Air Force, Hudson will need to be just as good. The fundamental rule to accomplish this is to “stay home,” which can be difficult for a young player on an aggressive defense. If Hudson sees that Rashan Gary is about to tackle the quarterback for a loss, he still needs to maintain the edge or Air Force will punish him for his zealousness in helping. Watch the Falcons do just that against Houston in the gif below.
But, Khaleke Hudson is a fast, hard-hitting, and smart player. He is up to the task, and against Air Force, he will have the best game of his career so far.
Tyree Kinnel (23): It is undeniable that safety Tyree Kinnel has emerged as a top defender for the Michigan defense. So far this season, he has already totaled 15 tackles and a pick 6 against Cincinnati. For this game, Kinnel is going to have to play with utmost discipline.
When Air Force is able to take advantage of the mistakes of Michigan’s front seven, Kinnel must always be in position and capable of stopping a big play by the Falcons. He will have to be the quickest man on the field throughout the day, and his open-field tackling will need to be superb. Even with this tall of an order, I predict Kinnel tallies at least another five tackles by the end of the game and records another interception as Air Force begins playing from behind.
Ty Isaac (32): Senior running back Ty Isaac has been off to an incredible start for the 2017 season.
As the rest of the offense has been working through inexperience and mistakes, Isaac has been quintessential to the unit’s success. He is the first Michigan Wolverine to record over 100 yards rushing in both of his first two games since Mike Hart in 2007. Prior to the start of the season, Isaac was supposedly third on the running back depth chart behind Chris Evans and Karan Higdon. Today, all eyes will be on Isaac to see if he keeps his 100+ rushing yards streak alive and if Michigan continues a rushing attack by rotation or appoints him as the premiere running back.
As dangerous as Air Force’s offense can be, its defense is not much of an obstacle, and it should not be too difficult for the Michigan offensive line to impose its will throughout the day. Therefore, my prediction for Ty Isaac’s stat line against the Air Force Falcons: 27 carries for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns.