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Preview: Defensive discipline, offensive execution the focus of Michigan’s showdown with Army

The Wolverines look to even up the all-time series against the Black Knights in Saturday’s showdown.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan Football’s season opener last weekend went well, all things considered, but was sloppy and the level of focus and execution came into question after the performance. Those are among the two things that will be looked at most closely in Saturday’s matchup with the Army Black Knights, who are an upset-minded fringe top 25 team looking to spoil some of the good early season vibes in Ann Arbor on Military Appreciation Day.

The Wolverines enter this game as a sizable favorite once again, though not quite as big as the opener. Make no mistake about it, though. Jeff Monken’s Black Knights, who have won 21 games over the past two seasons, are on the cusp of the national rankings and put a scare into a College Football Playoff contender last season when they took Oklahoma to overtime on the road.

The chief concern for the Wolverines and defensive coordinator Don Brown will be getting off the field against a dangerous and powerful triple option offensive attack that is designed to keep teams off the field and wear down opponents, as well as controlling the clock. Michigan’s offense will need to help in this area by extending their own drives and finishing them with touchdowns of their own. The way the Wolverines played in the opener will leave them ripe for a loss against the best teams on their schedule and now they have to go out and prove that some of the miscues from the first week were anomalies as opposed to trends that may emerge.

Game Info

Teams: Army Black Knights (1-0) at No. 7 Michigan Wolverines (1-0)

Date: Sept. 7, 2019

Location: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Time: 12 p.m. ET

Television: FOX

Radio: 950 AM in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, see affiliate stations here

Spread: Michigan -22 over/under set at 48 points

Storylines to Watch with Michigan

Execution, execution, execution (also ball security)

On both sides of the football, Michigan has to tighten up its efforts if they expect to walk out of Week 2 with a victory. Army has to play a flawless game in order to pull off the upset, which can be aided by the Wolverines being sloppy with the football and committing untimely turnovers.

For now, we can sort of give Josh Gattis’ Michigan offense the benefit of the doubt that it was filled with jitters and uncommon mistakes last week, but they have to be sharper and more decisive in their identity this week. Some of the quarterback roulette frippery between Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey may need to be dialed back and they may even revert to their old ways a bit in terms of running the ball more to keep the clock moving on their own to keep the Army offense off the field. You can also expect to see a lot of short, quick passes that move the chains and set up for shots down the field.

Defending the triple option

We did a “Triple Option 101” earlier this week on the type of offense that the Michigan defense is up against this week, but the short version is basically that with all of the motion and misdirection that we will see from Army on Saturday, Michigan’s defensive wherewithal and discipline will be tested mightily. Stopping the triple option means reading your keys and following the football as opposed to the ballcarrier and it is an attack designed to have a defender’s head spinning.

Michigan’s young and inexperienced defense is going to struggle at times in this game, and that is to be expected in a matchup like this. Obviously Army is a threat to win the game, but this one is more pass-fail in terms of how well the defense stays home and does not get thrown off balance as opposed to who wins the time of possession or total yards battle. Army is looking to get three yards at a time and often goes for it on fourth down, so Michigan will have to find a way to lower that number and get off the field.

Brown has been taking time in the spring and fall camp to prepare for Army, so this team is somewhat prepared coming in aside from the long week of game-planning.

Defensive line’s big test

This ties into the Michigan defense as a whole, but is worthy of its own discussion point. We had heard going into the season that this was a defensive line that could rotate 9-10 guys up front, but depth was tested in the game against Middle Tennessee State and the front four had a difficult time generating pressure on its own in the game.

Things should get better this week with Donovan Jeter and Michael Dwumfour set to potentially return to the field, but the durability of this group will still be tested in a big way. Army’s offense calls for a lot of cut blocks to seal off defenders from particular gaps, so Michigan’s defensive line will have to watch their legs and knees.

(Editor’s note: Plus, we’d never suggest any of our military service academies play dirty. Maize n Brew loves our troops!)

The dive portion of the triple option is going to run right at the teeth of the defensive line and if those guys are able to hold strong and close off that first read, things might wind up in decent shape for the Wolverines. If there are breakdowns on the front level of the defense that puts pressure on the back seven, it might be a long afternoon.

Honorable mention: Defensive backs

Army will only throw a handful of times per game and you will never quite known when it’s coming because they use it as a change-of-pace curveball. With run-heavy system they use, it is easy for defensive backs to be lulled to sleep (even though they have the be disciplined and help in run support, as well), which is usually where you see a pass play called. Keep an eye on that Saturday coming off of a performance in Week 1 where the corners and safeties were arguably the best position group on the field.

Quick Hits

  • Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (color) and Jenny Taft (sideline) will be on the television call for the game.
  • This contest will be the 10th meeting between the Wolverines and Black Knights, who actually used to be known as the Army Cadets on the football field. Army holds a 5-4 advantage in the all-time series, though these two teams have not met on the field since 1962, which was a 17-7 Michigan win.
  • The nine other matchups in this series took place between 1945 and 1962.
  • The Wolverines have won the last four games they have played against Army (1955, 1956, 1961, 1962)
  • Six of the nine games were top 20 matchups and four of them included both teams being ranked inside the top 10.
  • Michigan has played the service academy schools 31 times in school history in Air Force (3-0), Army (4-5), and Navy (12-5-1).
  • Michigan’s last game against a service academy school was against Air Force in 2017 in a 29-13 victory at Michigan Stadium.
  • Jim Harbaugh has an 11-2 record against non-conference opponents in his career at Michigan win the lone losses coming at Utah (2015) and at Notre Dame (2018).

MnB’s Army Week Game Coverage

Getting to know Michigan’s Week 2 opponent: Army

Scouting Michigan’s match-up: Army

Michigan line coach expects pair of defensive tackles to be back for game vs. Army

Inside the Numbers: Michigan vs mobile QBs under Don Brown

Out of the Blue Podcast: Prepare for war - Army game preview

To beat Army, Michigan must clean up its mistakes

A beginner’s guide to Army’s triple option offensive attack

Recent History: Michigan vs. Army

Behind Enemy Lines Q&A with Against All Enemies

Matchup to Watch: Josh Gattis will be tested by Army’s clock management skills

Michigan recruiting visitors list for the Army game

Podcast: Previewing Michigan vs. Army from the opposing point of view