clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Roundtable: Matchups to watch against Air Force

New, comments
Cincinnati v Michigan

Ed: Hey, guys. So, how well do you expect Michigan to rebound this weekend against Air Force? Will this be the team we saw against Florida, the one we saw against Cincinnati, or somewhere in between?

Von: Somewhere in between. As everyone knows now, since it’s all the national and local media wanted to talk about this off-season, this U-M team lacks game experience. Now is the time for this team to gain some experience, and this game against Air Force is just another shot at that.

The team was highly motivated to mop the floor against Florida. All the trash talking from McElwain, Scarlett and the fan base had the Wolverines all fired up. Cincinnati did little talk before the game, and the fact that the young guys had nerves before the home opener was expected. What was not expected were the struggles from Wilton Speight. Alas, those will hopefully go away by the time the Big 10 schedule rears its head around.

Colman: A win is a win, but it’s hard not to be a little worried about the continued mistakes against an opponent that was once again clearly outmatched.

In both of Michigan’s games, self-inflicted mistakes were the only reason the opposition was even close at any point, and these things have to be cleaned up or this will be a 8-9 win season instead of one with title hopes. Some of the mistakes were the same, but we saw a couple new ones, so hopefully Michigan continues to iron out the wrinkles as they occur and as Harbaugh likes to say, continues to ascend.

That said, I think Michigan will respond to these adversities like Harbaugh teams tend to respond...very well. This will be Michigan’s most complete game so far and will be better than the team we saw against both Florida and Cincinnati. Air Force will not be as physical on either side of the ball and just doesn’t have as many high level athletes as Michigan.

Alex: As Von said above, I think we’re looking at somewhere in between. 2-0 is great and the win Week 1 against Florida will hopefully look better as the season progresses as the Gators find their rhythm offensively.

With that being said, the mental mistakes offensively have to get worked out. Wilton Speight needs to step up and limit his mistakes while putting the offense in a position to be successful. Another piece of that puzzle is the right tackle position. Nolan Ulizio needs to find some consistency and continue to acclimate to the speed of the game at this level. I’ll expand on that further below.

Defensively, I expect this team to continue to play at a very high level. They seemed to have a little bit of difficulty with some screens vs. Cincinnati but the way they swarm to the ball and make the right reads is very, very encouraging. Don Brown has put this defense in a position to be special this season. The younger players will continue to pick things up and these are the games to do it in.

I look forward to seeing a more complete game from the Wolverines and think once they get a few possessions against the option under their belt, for this to be a solid performance on both sides of the ball.

Jared: We all must be watching the same games, because I agree. I believe we will get better in the areas where youth is the primary concern. For example the busted coverages in the secondary were kind of expected and the fact that we did not see them against Florida was more a byproduct of their anemic passing game.

The defense will continue to get better. Rashan Gary somehow does not have a full sack yet, that is going to change. What needs to change is with the guy we thought we could count on in Wilton Speight. His offensive line play is as good, if not slightly better than last season yet he seems to have regressed. Ulizio needs to build some consistency, but Speight has been missing throws with flawless pockets as well.

David: First off, fans need to get behind Speight and trust that he can lead this offense. Some may say Brandon Peters is more talented and he will have his time in the sun. Speight has some mechanics and footwork that he’ll work on over the season.

For this upcoming game, I want to see more of the same run game to control the game and keep their defense on the field. Take shots down the field because of what talent we have at WR and TE, bit all those guys need to do their part, same goes for the offensive line. Speight can gain confidence with a few solid drives.

Our defense will be tested with the triple-option offense Air Force runs, which is unique and has produced consistency over the years.

Drew: It’s difficult to compare how Michigan will perform relative to the Florida and Cincinnati matchups because Air Force (and any other service academy for that matter) is such an anomaly, at least offensively.

With their triple-option attack, the Falcons will be unlike any other opponent that Michigan has faced or will face this season. So much so, in fact, that Don Brown has been preparing and implementing packages for just this game since the spring. I expect Michigan to have a different approach defensively than it has in its first two games, where aggression has been the primary, secondary, and tertiary focus.

That is not to say that Michigan won’t be aggressive defensively because the moment Brown takes his foot off the gas pedal is the moment that hell freezes over. However, the key (other than Michigan’s stud defensive linemen not suffering knee injuries due to Air Force’s incessant cut blocks) will be discipline. Chase Winovich and Mike McCray, two Wolverines whom Cincinnati exploited and optioned off in space at times last week, cannot routinely get caught cheating on their assignments. If they or other Wolverines do, the Falcons’ backs will be zooming up and around the field over and over. But we do not know if that will be the case because Michigan hasn’t faced this offense before.

Cincinnati v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Ed: Everyone will be talking about Air Force’s triple option attack, but this will be a nice opportunity for Michigan’s defense to work on their teamwork and discipline. Who’s a Michigan defender you’ll be watching closely?

Von: I will be paying attention to Khaleke Hudson tomorrow. To stop the triple option, you need your linebackers to be right on it and be quick to attack. Hudson has been very good this season in his new role at the Viper position, but he is going to still be responsible for rushing the passer, stopping the run and defending the pass. He is going to has his hands full on Saturday, and he will have to be damn near flawless in order for Air Force’s triple option offense to be halted at all time.

Colman: Although I totally agree that the LBs will have the biggest jobs, I’ll be watching Bryan Mone when he’s on the field. He got more PT last week on running downs and I’m guessing that will continue against a team like Air Force. When you are playing a team that runs as much as they do it’s very beneficial to have a guy that can be a boulder in the middle of the field that forces the opposition to run around. With the talent and speed of Hurst, Gary, and Winovich, he should see a lot of one-on-one blocking. I want to see him clog up the middle and make this Air Force team run East and West where our LBs can do their work.

Alex: I love both of the above takes! It’s going to be a total effort defensively. The line needs to disrupt the backfield and our LB’s/Viper will need to control the edges with the secondary covering over top.

Personally, I’m going to be watching Devin Bush, Jr. in this one. He’s shown his ability to make reads and play sideline to sideline with his athleticism which is a great sign of a solid linebacker. He’s compiled 14 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and a pass deflection through two games and I expect to see that tackle number increase with a big Week 3 as he stalks the option.

Jared: The linebackers on this Michigan team have been cleaning up so far this season, I expect that trend to continue. The strength of the team may be the defensive line, but they are clearing the way for the speed in the back side of our defense to wreak havoc. Devin Bush is my new favorite player because he absolutely flies to the football, and Khaleke Hudson is right behind him.

The concern is depth. The Michigan defense cannot be on the field as long as they were against Cincinnati, because they don’t have wave after wave to can send in relief. Getting quick stops on defense and keeping the starters healthy will be key.

David: Devin Bush has shown a new and improved game that is intense and quick. Khaleke Hudson should also feast on the triple option Air Force will bring. The entire defensive unit have swarmed to the ball both games and also caused quick throws, which has turned into two pick-six plays against Cincinnati. Don Brown plays a blitz-style defense with many different packages. This could create havoc on the offense and keep them on the sideline.

Drew: As I indicated earlier, Chase Winovich and Mike McCray are the two defensive players to watch because they are most susceptible to being exploited. If I must pick one, it’s McCray. Winovich will be overeager and not execute his assignment at times, which may lead to the occasional chunk play, but his motor, effort, and speed will mitigate those mistakes and lead to stops. McCray is very good when coming down field in a line, but when asked to make a play in space against an agile, shift back, he loses too often. With the number of different looks, designs, runs, and options that Air Force will deploy, the Falcons will test McCray’s weaknesses frequently and force him to make those plays in space. If he can, Michigan is in great shape.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Everybody’s been talking about Wilton Speight and the passing game, and that makes every little detail magnified and analyzed. What’s your take on it? Is Michigan in good shape, bad, or somewhere in between?

Von: Once again, somewhere in between. It’s not good, but it’ not bad either. Speight is able to make big throws when he wants to (i.e., Tarik Black’s TD against Florida, Crawford’s TD last weekend), but the throws he is having the biggest problem with are those short-to-intermediate passes. Speight has happy feet in the pocket, on occasion, and that is leading to those accuracy issues. Once he makes an overthrow, it then seems like he can’t stop the overthrows. I’m not sure if it’s sheer coincidence or if his confidence shatters after those moments.

Regardless, Michigan could be in a much worse position at the quarterback position. Harbaugh knows what he is doing and he puts the best players on the field at all times. I heard the boo birds at Michigan Stadium on Saturday (which was absolutely ridiculous), and those people booing were begging to see anyone else at the quarterback position. To put it nicely: that ain’t happening anytime soon.

Colman: Wilton Speight has been disappointing so far and I don’t think there is any argument there. He’s had some erratic throws, INTs, a few ‘almost’ INTs and now a couple fumbles on handoffs. Some, including myself, thought that he would make a leap this season to an elite level of college quarterbacking and bring this offense to the next level with him. This has not happened. Yet.

I will NEVER discount a Harbaugh QB developing as time goes on. Some guys need more time for the light to fully turn on and his dimmer switch seems stuck in the middle. He makes a lot of good decisions and some great throws, but then makes a mistake that costs us points. The mistakes seem huge (and are of course in the moment) but broken down they look like they can be fixed.

He is clearly the best QB or he’d be on the bench, because, ya know, Harbaugh. The boo birds out there need to relax and I still think they are in good shape at QB. It seems like a couple small mechanical adjustments on throws under pressure and a little more focus on the fundamentals of handing the ball off and he’ll be fine.

Alex: I think the Wolverines are in good shape. I won’t discount the fact that Speight has been disappointing through two games but the expectations were high for him coming into the season leading the offense and all the new pieces.

I’m not trying to make excuses for him though. The case of the yips he had Week 1 were scary at times and the inconsistency is definitely troublesome. He needs to stay calm in the pocket and make the throws he’s capable of (which is pretty much all of them). Having his offensive line in sync is also a piece to the puzzle.

As we’ve seen through two weeks, there’s some trouble on the right side that’s shown glaringly at times. The physicality and speed of the game is something Nolan Ulizio is having difficulty adjusting to. Thankfully, he’s young and the mistakes haven’t crippled any huge game winning drives but if they aren’t cleaned up, they could down the road.

Jared: I both agree with the criticisms, but appreciate the optimism of my colleagues. Seemed to be a lot of fan chatter calling for Wilton Speight’s head, and I think that is misguided. Firstly, you should never boo college kids; and doing so when you are coming off two consecutive 10-win seasons and are winning the current game is absurd and infuriating. Speight is the best guy for the job, or else Jim Harbaugh —quarterback savant — would not be playing him.

That being said, Speight’s play left a lot to be desired and seems to be a regression from last season despite having at least the same, or possibly more time in the pocket than before. The offensive line is far from perfect, the receivers are not world beaters, but Speight is really missing a lot of opportunities and playing frantic early on.

Most people thought this team would take some time to get rolling; might be that beating Florida so handedly early on has us spoiled. Give this team time to come into their own, and let’s see how Speight does when we are in a real dogfight.

David: Air Force was 10-3 last season and had a top 40 ranked defense at the end of the season, but is also the lowest projected defense based on Michigan's opponents.

If you are questioning Jim Harbaugh and his staff based on how they are handling the quarterbacks then you need to evaluate yourself as a fan. Sorry, but if you are at home watching or in the stadium it's like you know more than Jim Harbaugh.

Other players outside of Speight must improve to contend for the Big Ten and College Football Playoff. The criticism about Speight is unwarranted at this point in the season. The young team will learn and grow, so it's a matter of how they will face adversity together that will shape the season. This teams need encouragement and fans must rally around these guys.

Drew: In between. Wilton Speight’s highs are high, but his lows are very low. He is able to make excellent plays that spark Michigan. His deep ball has been on point, and his pocket presence is outstanding. He habitually keeps his eyes downfield as he evades pressure and sheds rushers before finding an open receiver or scrambling for a first down. These plays make fans daydream as to just how good Speight can be.

However, he hasn’t been able to sustain it. A string of positive plays are snapped by a mind-blowing turnover or overthrow of a sure touchdown. It’s not that he makes lots of mistakes. It’s that the ones he makes tend to be very costly, squandering points for Michigan or handing them to the opponent.

Michigan hopes that Speight can be more consistent, but the only thing consistent about him seems to be his streakiness.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: As the non-conference comes to an end, what are some ‘loose ends’ you want to see taken care of before Michigan starts the Big Ten slate?

Von: Special Teams. Cincinnati did a good job preparing on offense and special teams against Michigan, but the mistakes on special teams for Michigan could have been critical. Donovan Peoples-Jones was shaky all day as the punt returner. He was involved in the fumble recovered by Cincinnati on a punt, and then he fielded a punt that was off a bounce that could’ve led to another potential turnover. Harbaugh saw enough and elected to have Grant Perry field the rest of the punts. DPJ will obviously get better, because he is an electric player, but Harbaugh made the right call at that moment in time.

Secondly, Will Hart had two real bad punts last Saturday that I probably could have done at an equal level. Like I said about Speight earlier, Harbaugh puts the best players on the field. If Hart is the best option U-M has at punter, it may be an inconsistent year for that aspect of the special teams. You simply cannot punt like that against teams like Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Because you know what will happen if you do? Those teams will score on you. Cincinnati didn’t because...well, it’s Cincinnati. Bottom line: Hart has to improve. He doesn’t have to be a #PuntGod like Kenny Allen, but a little capability would be good in my book.

Colman: Von hit the nail on the head. The punting and punt returning did not look good. Hart’s shanks came at bad times, as these things normally do, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only guy thinking that Jabrill Peppers would have caught every punt this year that has bounced around on the ground. When the ball starts darting around like that it’s inherently scary for the receiving team because when blockers are engaged or looking for a guy to block they aren’t looking for the ball and bad things can happen. There other options at both positions and I’m sure Harbaugh is keeping the competition for these jobs open.

The right side of the offensive line needs to improve as well. These are young guys and new starters so some of these mistakes are bound to happen but they absolutely have to get better or good teams will really take advantage. As long as we’re beating dead horses, Wilton Speight needs to clean up the mistakes. If he fixes just a couple things Michigan will be in a position to win every game.

Lastly, the defense as a whole needs the get better on screens. Brock Huard made the point on several occasions on the broadcast that Cincinnati was successful on these plays and should run more of them and he was right. Maryland and other teams last year found this too. Spread teams use screens often in their offense and the tunnel screen in particular has worked well against Michigan. The defense has been great, no doubt, but this is an area of concern.

Alex: Once again, couldn’t agree more with the above. Von and Colman hit it out of the park. I know DPJ is young but those mistakes will come back to bite the Wolverines in future games. The punting was a little worrisome and those mistakes just can’t happen versus the big boys.

Not to echo all of the above, but I’ve written quite a bit about Nolan Ulizio and the right tackle position. Coach Drevno is great with the offensive line and he’s shown flashes of quality but it needs to be more consistent. The speed of the game is getting to him and he’s got to step up before a big injury or big sack happens in a game where that will matter much more than Week 1 or 2.

Jared: Obviously I once again agree with the fellas, and am now convinced we are watching the same games. For the sake of variety, I will say playcalling. This one is hard to argue, because I am your textbook armchair quarterback yelling at the screen; but it seemed to me we have not been going with ‘hot hand’ early on. I am specifically referring to Ty Isaac in this case, in that the dude has shown he is ready for a breakout campaign, and seems to be being held back a little bit. That could be by design, but I would like to see the Wolverines ride his hot hand a little more early on. If the running game is working, that opens up everything for us. Including getting more touches for guys like Chris Evans and Karan Higdon who have yet to get going early on this season.

David: Agree with the comments above, special teams are a critical part for many reasons to execute to avoid mistakes that can shift the tone of a game. When the defense does their part and causes their opponent to punt, the last thing you want to see is a recovered punt having the defense go back out for another set of downs that could result in a score and impact the momentum.

I also want to see a balanced offense with several tight ends and wide receivers to catch passes because I have no concern for the run game at this point. Ty Isaac has emerged as the lead running back and may be one of the best we've seen in years if he keeps up having over 100 yards plus per game. Speight needs to improve on the midfield or intermediate throws. Trust this coaching staff and their plan for the program.

Drew: Because Air Force is so unique offensively, this game won’t allow Michigan to tie up any loose ends on defense in preparation for the Big Ten slate, though Michigan doesn’t have many on that side of the ball anyway. However, Michigan’s offense has plenty. Can Wilton Speight play a clean game? Will the offensive line continue to gel and smash an undersized Falcons front? Will Donovan Peoples-Jones look more comfortable in the offense and receive more touches? Will Michigan actually score some touchdowns in the red zone? Like I said, plenty.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Okay, before we end this thing: Let’s get some predictions for tomorrow’s game.

Von: Isaac runs for more than 100 yards for a third-straight game, and he even adds a touchdown to his impressive early season resume. Speight throws one interception, but also gets a few touchdowns in the mix. Overall, the defense plays good but inevitably gives up some points because it is bound to happen. Even Alabama gives up some points to teams sometimes.

Michigan 42, Air Force 17

Colman: Speight gets some redemption this week and goes for 300 yards and 3 TDs while making ZERO mistakes (INTs/fumbles) and has a completion % well above 60. He heard the boos and knows what is at stake for this team, and also knows he is the man for the job. He’ll start to look like the guy many are expecting for a second year Harbaugh QB.

Rashan Gary will “break out” and have himself a game with his first solo sack of the year, a couple solo TFLs, and will live in the backfield causing all sorts of chaos for Air Force. Michigan will look overall like the Top 10 team they are and destroy a lesser opponent with a dominating complete game.

Michigan 52, Air Force 7

Alex: The defense will take a possession or two to combat the triple option but Bush and Hudson will have themselves quite a day wreaking havoc in the backfield and on the edges. The defensive line will be very disruptive funnelling the QB and RB into our linebackers very capable hands.

Offensively, the Wolverines will start to come together. Speight will have a 2016-like game with 3 TDs and maybe a bad read or two but no turnovers. Crawford and Perry will have 75+ yards and a touchdown each and Ty Isaac will go for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michigan will show what they’re capable of with their most complete game of the season.

Michigan 56, Air Force 10

Jared: I went with the big win last week and was a bit underwhelmed, I will play on that this week. Michigan wins a game where they dominate the second half, but do allow some offensive production early on to make the loss look a little better for Air Force. Michigan will try and have a big day on the ground to mitigate the Air Force time of possession; the Wolverine linebackers are going to have a field day.

Michigan 35, Air Force 10

David: Air Force is coming off a bye after a 62-0 win in their season opener against Virginia Military. They had 647 total yards, which 457 of that was on the ground. I want to see everyone on defense swarming the ball to eliminate any long plays to deflate their offense and keep them on the field. Like Michigan, Air Force returns one starter on defense, so our offense has the opportunity of finding their rhythm and build some confidence.

I want another solid performance by Ty Isaac with a third straight game with over 100 yards. Air Force will find the endzone, but not for 62 points. Speight improves and eliminates some of the mistakes from the first two games and finds the end zone twice with two different players. Donovan Peoples-Jones gets better at punt returns and has one very impressive return at some point.

Michigan 45, Air Force 13

Drew: Here is a lock of a prediction: Michigan fans will surely be irritated by the triple option and wonder why in the hell the Wolverines ever put a service academy on the schedule. A lock.

This game will be closer than those fans will like. Air Force is stocked with upperclassmen who are well-acclimated to the triple-option offense and disciplined in their roles. Even though Michigan’s rush defense has been exquisite through two weeks, the Falcons, particularly quarterback Arion Worthman and running back Tim McVey, will test the Wolverines in ways they have not experienced at the collegiate level. This will lead to some busts by the Wolverines and some points for the Falcons, keeping this game close late in the third quarter. However, yet again, Michigan will pull away in the fourth quarter as Ty Isaac eclipses 100 rushing yards again.

Michigan 34, Air Force 17