About a week ago, everybody seemed to think the Wolverines were unstoppable. An offseason full of questions and concerns was put to rest when the Michigan football team stomped Florida in the biggest season opener it has had in years.
Then came the Cincinnati game. It should have been an easier win, but it turned into a reality check instead. The Wolverines left the game with a second win, but there was undoubtedly room — and a need — to improve leading up to the Big Ten season.
No. 7 Michigan’s final non-conference game is this Saturday against Air Force, a disciplined opponent with a unique offense that has had two weeks to prepare.
The Falcons crushed Virginia Military Institute (VMI), 62-0, in their season opener two weeks ago, and haven’t played a game since. That said, Michigan is a 23.5-point favorite to win.
Here’s how the Wolverines match up against Air Force on Saturday.
Michigan pass offense vs. Air Force pass defense
Even though redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight has had some shaky moments already this season, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has clearly stated that Speight will remain the starting quarterback. Speight has completed 52 percent of his passes, and has tallied 402 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Despite the two pick-sixes, Speight connects well with all three starting receivers — junior Grant Perry, sophomore Kekoa Crawford and freshman Tarik Black. Speight has spread the wealth amongst them, as each starting wide receiver already has a touchdown catch.
Air Force’s pass defense allowed 40 passing yards and just six first downs in its opening game, but in terms of overall ability, VMI obviously doesn’t match up with the Wolverines. The Falcons’ defensive coordinator Steve Russ emphasizes the importance of stopping the run, but has said that he likes to disrupt the passing game with blitzes fairly often.
The more Air Force blitzes, the more chances Speight has to hit his receivers for big plays.
Michigan run offense vs. Air Force run defense
The Michigan run game involves a three-man rotation — fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, sophomore Chris Evans and junior Karan Higdon. The Wolverines start most drives by handing the ball to Isaac. Against Cincinnati, he rushed for a career-high 133 yards. Isaac’s best speed comes when he is running to the outside. While he doesn’t have a touchdown yet, he has established himself as the lead runner, and another 100-yard outing from Isaac is very possible.
Evans’ best asset is his speed. He hasn’t broken free for any major plays so far in 2017, but he sets himself apart from Isaac and Higdon in the open field.
Higdon has Michigan’s lone rushing touchdown, and the coaches seem to favor him in the red zone. Over the course of the season, Higdon may not gain as many yards as Isaac or Evans, but he will be a key player when it comes to hammering the ball into the end zone.
Simply put, Air Force probably won’t have an answer for Michigan’s running backs.
The Falcons lost 11 of their top 12 tacklers from last season, and much like the Wolverines, only one defensive starter returned — linebacker Grant Ross. Michigan hasn’t displayed a prominent run game yet, but if Isaac or Evans manages to find a gap, they’ll run right through Air Force’s rush defense.
Air Force pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Air Force quarterback Arian Worthman has reason to be pretty nervous. Michigan’s defense is averaging five sacks a game, and they don’t hit lightly. Worthman tossed for 172 yards and two touchdowns against VMI, but he won’t have nearly as much time to throw against the Wolverines.
Junior safety Tyree Kinnel is leading the defense with 15 tackles, a sack and a pick-six. Right behind him is sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr., who has 14 tackles with two sacks.
The quarterback pressure could come from anywhere, and it probably will come from everywhere. Whether it is from linebackers like senior Mike McCray and sophomore Khaleke Hudson or defensive linemen like sophomore Rashan Gary, Worthman will not be given much time to relax.
On the off chance that he does have time to throw, Michigan’s secondary has already returned two interceptions for touchdowns — so his odds aren’t too great there either.
Air Force run offense vs. Michigan run defense
This breakdown hasn’t been very kind to Air Force. However, the Falcons’ run offense deserves respect. It’s the one area they could truly threaten Michigan. Here’s why.
The triple-option playbook Air Force utilizes is full of trick plays and deception. The Wolverines haven’t faced an opponent like that this year, or any year recently. Against VMI, the Falcons’ unconventional system managed to run for 473 positive yards, had seven different players score rushing touchdowns and had 11 players rush for over 20 yards.
The Wolverines have talked about prepping for this scheme since last spring, though. Michigan’s defensive line should power through the Falcons’ front five. When the likes of Gary and veteran linemen Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich come crashing on the Falcons’ door, the triple-option won’t have so much flexibility.
The Wolverines undoubtedly have the better talent on special teams, but they have yet to prove it. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones was benched as the punt returner because he was making risky decisions. His replacement, junior Grant Perry, only called for fair catches — something Peoples-Jones never did.
Michigan redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin had an eye for the field goals against Florida, hitting four-for-six with two for over 50 yards. Air Force hasn’t kicked a field goal yet this season — it scored touchdowns on most of its drives against VMI.
Speight is out to prove himself. While he’s not in any danger of losing his starting spot, the criticism around his two interceptions week one and his two fumbles week two has been growing. If he cleans up those mistakes, Speight could be primed for a dominant performance Saturday.
Leading the Wolverines into the Big Ten season undefeated, and throwing a few more touchdowns in the process, would get everyone back on Speight’s side.
The Wolverines have the edge in every category, but don’t count Air Force out with its tricky, fast offense. Cincinnati gave Michigan a scare, so there is no reason to think the Falcons can’t either. On the scoreboard, this Saturday could look a lot like the last.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Air Force 13