In 2012, Michigan opened its season on neutral turf in Dallas before coming home to take on what we all thought was an average Air Force team. Early in the fourth quarter of that game, the Falcons had cut it to a three-point contest before the Wolverines added another field goal and won, 31-25. It was safe to call it a scare, and the preseason No. 8 team might not have escaped without a thrilling performance from then-quarterback Denard Robinson, who tallied more than 200 yards and two scores both on the ground and through the air.
Flash forward to 2017, and Michigan will again face a pesky Air Force team shortly after returning from a season opener in Dallas. This time, however, Air Force won’t be coming off a 7-6 season — the Falcons were 10-3 in 2016 and are looking to build on that success. Those 10 wins included a 14-point victory over rival Navy and knocking off No. 19 Boise State in the regular season finale.
WHO: Michigan vs. Air Force
WHAT: Final Non-Conference Game
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 (Time TBA)
WHERE: The Big House
Let’s look at what the Falcons will bring to the field in 2017.
If you want to beat Air Force, you need to learn how to stop the triple option. Last season, they were 36th nationally with 452 yards per game. Those yards were far from balanced, however, as 317 came on the ground with only 135 through the air. The loss of two key tailbacks in D.J. Johnson and Jacobi Owens will hurt. Johnson put up 622 yards last season, while Owens, who led the team in rushing the last two years, amassed over 3,000 yards in his college career. Luckily, the Falcons return both of their contributing quarterbacks in Nate Romine and Arion Worthman, as well as second-leading rusher Tim McVey. Those three combined for 1,661 yards rushing last season, along with 19 scores.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons were No. 53 in the country, surrendering 26.7 points per game. This unit will take a hit in 2017. Overall, 11 of the top 12 tacklers were seniors in 2016. The pass rush specifically will miss Ryan Watson and Haji Dunn, who combined for 22.5 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks last season. The burden will fall on the shoulders of returning linebacker Grant Ross, who ranked third on the team in tackles with 67.
Air Force will grind you down. They play hard-nosed football. Opponents actually outscored the Falcons by 29 points in the first quarter last season. They made up for that deficit as the games played out, only allowing five points per contest in the fourth quarter.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michigan fans should acquaint themselves with Tim McVey. As a junior in 2016, the 5-9 running back did a little bit of everything for the Falcons. He rushed for 708 yards and 10 scores, while also notching 193 yards and two touchdowns receiving. And don’t forget about his kickoff return for a touchdown. Though not the most physically intimidating back, McVey is a hard runner and can lineup all over the field — a quality that can be dangerous in the Air Force offense.
Speaking of versatility, keep your eye on the quarterback position. Fifth-year Nate Romine will return, as will Arion Worthman. Neither is a towering force, each standing at just 5-11, but they can both play. Romine is the veteran starter, tallying 1,206 and 10 touchdowns through the air last season, though he did only complete 42 percent of his passes. Worthman, on the other hand, completed 59 percent for 546 yards, while adding 674 yards and six scores on the ground. Both of these guys can be dangerous, and look for each to garner playing time in the Big House.
Air Force will face the Virginia Military Institute in its first game and then will have a bye week before traveling to Ann Arbor. In other words, they will be fresh and ready to play the underdog role. That said, Michigan will have a strong offense in 2017 facing this depleted Falcons defense. That won’t bode well for the road team.
On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan should be able to handle the mostly one-dimensional Air Force offense. But they’ll have to stop the triple option. Sounds easier than it actually is.
On paper, this should be a solid win for the Wolverines as they close out the non-conference slate. It’ll be about taking care of business at home.
Over the course of the summer, we will be breaking down each of Michigan football’s upcoming 2017 opponents.