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Reaction Roundtable: No. 7 Michigan 29, Air Force 13

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What in the world is happening to Michigan in the red zone? Our staff breaks it down and more in our reaction to the Wolverines’ win against Air Force.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.

Drew Hallett: So… do we want to start with the good or bad from Michigan’s 29-13 win over Air Force on Saturday?

Josh LaFond: Whew… let's get the bad stuff out of the way, man.

Drew: Okay. The bad:

I wrote this past week about my concern with Michigan’s red-zone struggles in the first two games. In them, Michigan scored only one touchdown in six red-zone trips despite getting inside the 5-yard line four times. That touchdown rate (16.67%) was tied for 127th out of 129 teams.

Well, after Saturday, Michigan now has just one touchdown in 10 red-zone trips (10.0%). Yikes.

This is no longer a potential concern. It’s a full-blown problem. Like it did against Cincinnati, Michigan allowed Air Force to hang in this game throughout because it could not finish drives. At all. The Wolverines entered the red zone four times, and each time they did, everything came to a screeching halt. The running backs found no room between the tackles. Wilton Speight lost any semblance of his accuracy, again leading receivers out of bounds on throws to the sideline. He’s now 1-for-13 for minus-1 yard in the red zone this season, which is extremely hard to fathom.

However, it’s not just on the players. This is on the coaches as well. Inside the Huddle’s Michael Spath reported after the game that certain former Wolverines have told him that the play calling in the red zone is “absolutely brutal,” and I agree. The play calls have been very conservative, running frequently on first down when the defense is crowding the line of scrimmage and calling fades to the sideline on passing downs. Defenses are daring Michigan to throw over the middle in the red zone, and the Wolverines are either not accepting or failing to execute in the few instances when they do. Michigan needs to place its trust in Speight to make those plays, and Speight needs to place his trust in the offensive line to protect him and permit him to progress through his reads. But there is an apparent lack of trust on all levels in the red zone right now.

And, as I wrote last week, it will cost Michigan a game (maybe next week) if not fixed soon.

Josh: You made some good points, Drew. There's no sugarcoating it: the offensive play calling in the red zone has been vanilla, and that's putting it mildly. Sooner or later, you're right: not capitalizing on those golden opportunities will cost Michigan dearly in close games down the stretch.

I actually thought -- for the most part -- that Wilton Speight made the right decisions inside the 20, but I don't think he was put in a position to capitalize. That's because of the play calling.

Whether it's running it up the gut when you're 10-plus yards out, looking for a fade that isn't there, or even scrambling to avoid the rush just to have the ball batted down (on what was an athletic play by the defensive back), they were never given the chance to succeed down there.

Now I'm not suggesting a radical change in members of the coaching staff or a potential personnel shift in the lineup, like some fans are calling for. But the play calling does need to open up. I have yet to see a running back screen or any kind of stick or flood route. If you're not familiar with the stick or flood, they're plays that’d create space and utilize their playmakers.

I'm rambling, I know, but my point is this: this offense is almost anemic inside the 20, and they have playmakers (like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Zach Gentry, Nick Eubanks, and even Grant Perry) who are athletic and (Perry excluded) have the size to go high point a ball in the end zone. I hope to see the plays I described and players I mentioned used next week to help quell these concerns from the fan base.

Kevin Bunkley: Maybe this is a new wrinkle in the offense: be good at big play explosiveness, so they don't need any red zone output! Two long Ty Isaac touchdowns were erased from the board, and Higdon ran one in from 36 yards out. But to Josh’s point, where the hell have the tight ends been? That seems like an overlooked advantage based on pure physicality. And either Speight isn't reading defenses properly, or he has lost his touch for the fade route. But it doesn't seem like they have other options aside from the dang fade route right now, which... wut?

Drew: I’ve been very surprised that Michigan has not utilized its fullbacks and tight ends more in the red zone. Michigan has Khalid Hill. THE HAMMERING PANDA. Who scored 13 touchdowns (10 rushing, three receiving) last season. Yet he has only four touches through three games this year -- all on the ground. Why is Michigan not feeding him the ball more, particularly when U-M is inside the 5-yard line? The Wolverines also have a platoon of tall, athletic tight ends that should be perfect targets over the middle of the field. Zach Gentry has shown some shiftiness in his route running, recording a 30-plus-yard reception for the second straight week. He’s also 6-foot-7. Sean McKeon and Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. have shown flashes that they can be reliable. But none of the tight ends have a red-zone reception thus far, and my guess is that they have not been targeted often. Further, the only Wolverine with a reception in the red zone is Grant Perry, who should be earning more looks deep in opponent territory as well. He is a route artisan, able to separate himself from opposing defensive backs and, particularly, linebackers. This is an asset that Michigan needs to use to its advantage when space starts to shrink.

These are things that will help Wilton Speight feel more comfortable in the red zone because despite his faults and, currently, lack of touch, he’s not being put in a position to succeed. I know Michigan fans are not thrilled with Speight at the moment, pointing to the 1-for-13 stat I just stated in the preceding section, but he still is Michigan’s best quarterback and best option to score. And, if Michigan is able to adjust its approach in the red zone, you will see the Wolverines score more.

Josh: Thank you for pointing that out, Drew! How could I forget about The Hammering Panda?! Khalid Hill had 13… that's right, 13 TOUCHDOWNS LAST YEAR! Hill was everywhere, whether in the passing game or on the ground, but he's now nowhere to be seen. I think giving him a larger role would help ease the tension inside the 20.

I also like how you addressed the lack of tight end use. Despite losing Jake Butt and Devin Asiasi, this position group is still in a good standing. I tweeted out that Zach Gentry’s blocking has really improved, and it has. He already had the pass catching ability, and now his blocking in addition has made him a reliable guy to have on the field in goal-to-go settings. Then there's Nick Eubanks, a guy who heading into the year seemed to be destined as a red-zone specialist, but who is yet to get real looks in that spot. Sean McKeon and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. are no scrubs either. They are both competent tight ends who are weapons in their own right.

I guess the point I'm getting to is this: there's no denying the problems in the red zone as you mentioned ether, but it's not time to panic. If Michigan was searching for playmakers and threats inside the 20, we would be in for a long ride. But the play calling is more to blame than anything, and that's something that can easily be fixed. I completely expect to see guys that I mentioned like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Gentry, Eubanks, Tarik Black, and Hill to become much more involved as the play calling opens up over the course of the next few games, and I think that a couple weeks from now, these concerns will be in Michigan’s rearview mirror.

While we're still on the topic of concerns though, I want to bring this up something else to get all of this negative stuff over with before I put another hole in the wall (only slightly kidding). But what's up with Will Hart’s punting? I know we were spoiled with the job that Kenny Allen did, but is this really the best that this position is capable of? Hart has shown plenty of potential on several of his punts, but he's been far too inconsistent. Is it time to see what Brad Robbins has, or are Michigan fans going to continue to deal with Hart palpitations on nearly every punt?

Drew: There were two issues on special teams that popped up again, one of which is Will Hart. He shanked a punt for 25 yards in the fourth quarter, giving Air Force the ball on its own 40-yard line in a nine-point game with 6:10 left. This is now his third shanked punt in two weeks after having a punt partially blocked in the opener against Florida. These miscues are negatively impacting Michigan in the field position battle, and the effect is felt more because the Wolverines have not pulled away in games until the fourth quarter. With opponents hanging around trying to usurp the Wolverines, the last thing they can afford to do is give those opponents short fields.

Is it time to give Brad Robbins a shot? I do not know. Robbins was well-regarded in high school, but we have not had an opportunity to see him in action, whereas Jim Harbaugh has in practice. Harbaugh has shown that he will play the best available at each position, so if he continues to send Hart out there, then we have to believe that Robbins is not ready for the big time just yet.

The other special teams issue is Michigan’s kickoff returning. Kekoa Crawford has not been inspiring back there. He’s averaged only 18.3 yards on six kickoff returns, and it seems like Michigan is always starting short of its 25-yard line when Crawford brings it out. It would be better if Crawford just took a knee in the end zone for a touchback each time. And that’s because Crawford has not shown the vision or agility to break a big return. He has had the space to do so on a few occasions, but he cannot escape the one or two coverage specialists in the area. We just saw what Donovan Peoples-Jones is capable of with the ball in his hands on punts. I think it might be time to experiment and see what he can do on kickoff returns as well.

Josh: The shanked punts easily could have been momentum killers, but the defense was definitely able to stem the tide. I agree with you. Jim Harbaugh will always run his team as a meritocracy, playing the best man available at every position. Hopefully Will Hart can make it through next week without any confidence-killing punts and use the approaching bye week to iron out these flaws and work out the kinks.

As far as the kick returning goes, I'm inclined to agree. Kekoa is a good receiver and has good awareness, but returning kicks doesn't seem to be in his wheelhouse. Donovan Peoples-Jones showed that he is (in my mind) the most electric player with the ball in his hands on this team. Peoples-Jones showed on multiple punt returns on Saturday, including that beautiful run back for a touchdown, that he needs to be the go-to return man. This team has been searching for a spark plug, and inserting him in as the go-to kickoff returner could play big dividends across the board. It would certainly help with the starting field position, by creating momentum early in the drive, which would, again, help give this struggling offense a much needed boost.

Drew: That 79-yard punt return for a touchdown by Donovan Peoples-Jones was a wonderful display of the athleticism and body control that contributed to his five-star status. He burned past Air Force’s punt team and managed to tiptoe along the sideline before scoring, which was much needed because there was not much faith that Michigan’s offense could finish the job.

And it was much needed because Michigan could not ask its defense to do everything.

We addressed the bad in this game first, but it’s not fair to Michigan’s defense that we waited this long to discuss them. They were not perfect, but they were extremely impressive. Air Force’s triple-option attack causes much trepidation among defenses. It is a unique, annoying offense that can hit you with a 1,000 paper cuts on the ground before going for the kill shot through the air. It punishes defenses that are not sound and do not execute their assignments.

Michigan was not one of those defenses. Michigan’s 3-3-5 shut down the triple option much of the day. Air Force ran for 195 yards on 46 non-sack carries, which is only 4.2 YPC, and was constantly under pressure on the few occasions when it dropped back to pass. The Falcons were just 1-for-9 through the air, sacked thrice, and intercepted once (almost twice). The one but of course is that Air Force’s only completion was a 64-yard touchdown when play action on a sweep caused Michigan’s safety to slide to the sideline and opened a huge gap in the middle of the defense. It was a mistake, but it tends to happen when the defense sees the run over and over again. Otherwise, the Falcons had a very difficult time moving the ball against Michigan.

That wasn’t the case back in 2012, so all I have to say is: Don Brown is a dude.

Kevin: A dude is more than a guy, remember.

What about you guys? Which defensive players stood out for you?

Josh: The defense played lights out. Defending the triple option -- when it's executed correctly -- is one of THE hardest things to do in college football, but Michigan did a stand-up job. Aside from the long Worthman to Cleveland touchdown, the defense shut the Falcons down.

The stars of this defense showed out again, but in particular: Mike McCray, Lavert Hill, and Devin “The Flash” Bush Jr. These guys seemed to always be in the right spot at the right time.

Bush Jr. and McCray each totaled 11 tackles and were everywhere. Whether it was Bush showing that Flash Gordon speed while tracking down Worthman in the backfield or McCray sealing the edge and shutting down a potential big play, they both did a marvelous job. The linebacking corps will be a major strength for the Wolverines throughout the year.

Watching Hill lock down an entire side of the field a la Jourdan Lewis just warms my heart. Going into the season, the storyline to follow was how this young secondary -- the cornerbacks in particular -- would play, and Hill has answered that with stellar play after stellar play.

Hill was able to come off of his block and make a clutch tackle, limiting the big play, on more than one occasion. Let's not forget that although Air Force is a triple option based team, they still pass the ball, and they were held to 1-of-9 passing for 64 yards (the lone completion which capitalized on a defensive miscommunication) in large part due to Hill’s performance.

Watching these Wolverines -- as well as the rest of this talented defense -- calms my nerves when I see the offense sputter because they can put U-M in a position to win without much help.

Drew: Those are great choices, Josh. Mike McCray was one of two Wolverine defenders that I really kept my eye on, and he delivered, registering some big stops in the backfield (two TFL). The other Wolverine I had my eye on was Chase Winovich. As the weakside end in the 3-3-5, he would handle much of the stress that the triple option put on the defense. And he did a great job, posting nine tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He routinely pushed Air Force’s blockers into the backfield, slowing down the developing option for losses or minimal gains.

In fact, Michigan’s defensive line controlled Air Force’s offensive line for the most part. Maurice Hurst, Jr. was his usual self, and Rashan Gary delivered some punishing blows. And the best development for the Wolverines was that none of them were hurt by Air Force’s cut blocking.

Kevin: Really, aside from Air Force’s lone touchdown on that big passing play, I thought Michigan’s defense did well containing the triple option. I just read a thorough breakdown of Don Brown’s scheme, and they excelled at limiting big gainers, which is kind of the point. Air Force finished with just 168 rushing yards, and cracked 200 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter.

Late in the game, Michigan was finally able to blitz a couple times, and it disrupted the passing attempts on those plays. Rush yards per carry and pass yards per attempt both ended up under five, which means the interior of Michigan’s defense was making tackles when Air Force pushed past the front line. And they didn't get fooled on those exhausting stretch plays toward the end. The linebackers did work today -- Mike McCray, Noah Furbush, and Devin Bush -- and I’m really encouraged by their speed. Ditto for Khaleke Hudson nearly nabbing two interceptions. And how about young David Long making a couple key tackles?

And one offensive note: I will fight anyone who disputes that Ty Isaac is RB1 after three weeks. Dude is night and day from where he was last year.

Drew: I doubt many will dispute that, Kevin. Ty Isaac was too patient at times (the loss on 3rd & 1 sticks out), but his vision and decisiveness has vastly improved. He’s been eyeing those backside cuts, and they almost propelled him to a 100-yard day for the third straight game. And, with Chris Evans fumbling, Isaac is more set as the starter.

Ultimately, this was not a pretty win for Michigan, but there were still many promising signs. First, each week, I’m becoming more and more convinced that this defense is elite. It may not be the nation’s best (see: Clemson), but good luck finding five defenses better than this one.

Second, Quinn Nordin has been better than advertised as a redshirt freshman. With Michigan struggling as much as it has in the red zone, Nordin has ensured that the Wolverines at least walk away with some points. He was 5-for-5 on Saturday, tying Michigan’s single-game record for most made field goals, and is now 11-for-13 on the season. And it’s not as if he’s only making gimmes. He drilled a 49-yarder at the end of the first half to give the lead back to Michigan against Air Force. The Wolverines do not want to rely on Nordin this much, but it is reassuring to know that he can be counted on when so many programs struggle in this area.

And third, Michigan has some major situational problems on offense, but the entire unit is not broken. The Wolverines continue to hit on some critical chunk plays, recording four more 30-plus-yard plays and six that went for at least 24 yards. The offense can produce somewhat.

However, as discussed in the beginning, Michigan’s inability to capitalize in the red zone is a glaring issue, and it makes next week look more harrowing. Purdue is… good?! The Boilermakers dismantled Missouri (in Missouri!), and they look nothing like the team that dwelled in the bottom of the Big Ten standings for years under Darrell Hazell. Jeff Brohm has turned this Purdue program into an explosive pest in just one offseason. Seeing how Don Brown and this Michigan defense prepares for it will be fun (if you do not have a vested interest in either team), but if the Wolverines squander points on the road against this type of offense, they may find themselves in trouble.

Kevin: #Nordin4Heisman