I tend to be a glass half-full kind of guy and try to put things into perspective based on Michigan's entire situation this season. While Saturday left fans wanting more points on offense, the good news is they came out victorious and are going into conference play ranked No. 8 in the country. The Wolverines may not look like a top-10 team right now, but all that matters is they beat the team on the other side of the field and move on. There's obvious concern just like every other team so early in the season. I trust this coaching staff to continue working with the young squad and find ways for improvement, especially in the red zone, heading into the thick of the season.
Let's take a look at how each position group performed on Saturday against a very well-coached Air Force team.
Special Teams: A
Some may award this group an A-plus for how well the freshmen performed. Two of them had career days and really impacted the outcome by allowing Michigan to never trail in the game.
Quinn Nordin had a program record five field goals, taking his total to 11 over three games. His perfomance also awarded him Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. James Foug averaged 64.2 yards per kick and had five touchbacks. A week ago, the punts against Cincinnati were far from average and needed some improvements, so the freshmen are doing well in high-pressure experiences.
Donovan Peoples-Jones also ran back a punt to the house and gave everyone what they've been waiting for out of the Detroit native in just his third collegiate game. His electric plays and speed breaking off the final tackle before crossing the goal line allowed for more breathing room when the offense struggled to find the end zone.
Other than one personal foul by Ben Mason on a kickoff, it was a great day for this unit.
Defensive line: A
Coach Don Brown started preparing for this Air Force triple-option offense in the spring. The plan paid off by holding the Falcons to their lowest yardage total (232 total yards, 168 rushing) in 53 game. You would have to go all the way back to Dec. 29, 2012 when Air Force played Rice when they held them to only 214 yards.
Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst contributed to 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Their size and speed were just too much for their trickery. That is likely as good of an effort you will see against Air Force this year in a highly effective scheme against their opponents.
This group played very well overall with several guys contributing to stop the run game by Air Force. Devin Bush Jr. and Mike McCray combined for 22 tackles, and Khaleke Hudson also was flying around with five tackles total. Bush is having a solid season overall with 25 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and four sacks. This group was very quick and swarmed to the ball, which eliminated several potential big runs.
Tight end: B+
This unit overall had a decent day, partially due to less tight end plays this Saturday compared to the first two games. Zach Gentry had a great 30-yard catch in the second quarter. Sean McKeon, Tyrone Wheatley Jr., along with Gentry played well blocking and I liked how the group contributed.
Zach Gentry is getting more and more opportunities and he's delivering as a blocker. pic.twitter.com/XoUR4xHqcU— Michael Spath (@MichaelSpathITH) September 17, 2017
I would like to see Gentry or Wheatley used more in the red zone since they are huge targets for smaller defenders.
Offensive line: B
Short runs and solid blocking allowed for a decent day on the ground with 190 yards. While they got in the red zone seven times, short plays didn't turn into first downs causing Quinn to go out and do his job kicking it through for three points. The right tackle is an important position with some youth, so players in that rotation have to improve and play their critical role.
Overall, they weren't tested as much because of the style of offense by Air Force. Six-of-seven pass attempts were incomplete because of great coverage and players doing well in their assignments.
Running back/fullback: B
Ty Isaac played well for a third straight game with 89 yards on 16 carries for an average of 5.6 per carry. He would have easily exceeded the 100 yard mark if he didn't have one run come back to the 30 yard line when his foot hit the out of bounds line and a holding penalty was called on Crawford moved his other long run back.
There was some hesitation in the backfield that caused issues on third and short. Karan Higdon also looked good with 12 carries and 64 yards, along with a late touchdown in the game to give the Wolverines some breathing room. He also did very well in pass protection.
We should see more of Higdon. He hits holes harder and isn't afraid of contact. Plus he's their best pass blocker. pic.twitter.com/1Kr41bYwm1— Michael Spath (@MichaelSpathITH) September 17, 2017
Chris Evans had one fumble and has to insert himself in the rotation more for explosive plays to continue their run game success. He’s found holes in the past for big yards and there was that pre-season hype at the end of last season that hasn't happened yet. If you watched the three games, there are times he has also slipped when he could have gained more yards on several plays.
Close to 200 yards on the ground is not horrible, but better blocking and everyone doing their role on offense could allow multiple guys with big games of over 100 yards. I want to see Khalid Hill more in plays like we saw last season. I’d also like to see Chris Evans contribute more if Isaac is having a lower performing game.
Wilton Speight had a few overthrown balls, but also minimized mistakes overall with zero turnovers. He also had decent numbers in the air with 14 for 23 and 169 yards, but failed to score more than once in the red zone. He had a few nice throws with time in the pocket, so he needs to continue making smart decisions against Purdue.
What Harbaugh liked about Wilton's game on Saturday: "We won..." Made good throws from pocket, through tight windows.— Isaiah Hole (@isaiahhole) September 18, 2017
I would like to see a more up tempo offense with a continued solid run game to keep opponents’ defense on the field during long drives. I would also like to see more success on short throws and screens for potential big plays with so many weapons and likely mismatch situations because of their size.
Wide receiver: C
The group as a whole did their job overall, but had opportunities for more catches. Donovan Peoples-Jones turned a catch at the line of scrimmage into a 37-yard play. Eddie McDoom, Grant Perry and Kekoa Crawford all contributed, but nobody had huge numbers because of how well Air Force did in protection. No sign of Nico Collins yet, but we may see him soon with Tarik Black injured.
The scoring concerns continue after they were just one-for-seven in red zone attempts. Tim Drevno may have a few things up his sleeve, but the play calling seems to be one of the biggest issues and grumblings by fans. This seems like a very vanilla sort of offense right now and will be one of the biggest question marks heading into conference play. You can't blame the quarterback for every mistake and missed opportunity on Saturday. The group has so much young talent, so I’ll stay optimistic that one of these games it will all click during much needed drives in close games.
Will we see the train in the red zone and see more solid drives? I know if that happens more, and quick, fans will be feeling confident heading into November.
Don Brown did a fantastic job with the defense and was the biggest impact of the outcome, along with the special teams. He had eight guys get two or more solo tackles to shut down Air Force for most of the day.
I am very excited to see how this team responds on the road in their first conference test at Purdue on Saturday.