What’s the first rule about playing Air Force?
Never play Air Force.
No. 8 Michigan slogged its way to a mostly unsatisfying 29-13 win over the Falcons on Saturday. The Wolverines did well in shutting down Air Force’s triple-option offense. But their own offense struggled to convert deep in Falcon territory, settling for a field goal on all four trips into the red zone.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:
1. Ty Isaac is a home-run hitter
It didn’t take long for the fifth-year senior to wrest the starting running back job away from Chris Evans — only one week, to be exact. And Isaac hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down, either. He’s been Michigan’s most consistent runner and is a constant threat to break a long run.
Against Air Force, he had two that were this close to going the distance — a 32-yarder in the first quarter that displayed impressive burst, and a 26-yarder in the third that would’ve been a touchdown had sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford not been flagged for holding.
On the season, Evans and Higdon are averaging 3.7 and 4.6 yards per carry. Isaac, meanwhile, is averaging 7.1, and last week, The Athletic ranked him the No. 26 most efficient runner in the nation. He’s been a significant difference-maker out of the backfield, and if the injury he suffered late in Saturday’s game is serious, Michigan’s run game will suffer.
2. Don Brown remains unstoppable
Michigan’s defensive coordinator may find his name in conversations for the Broyles Award — given to the nation’s best assistant coach — at the end of the season. He’s taken a relatively inexperienced unit and kept it running just as smoothly as last year’s historically elite defense.
That’s nothing short of remarkable.
On Saturday, Air Force — which had won seven straight games — was the latest team to run into Brown’s buzzsaw of a defense. Aside from one big bust in the passing game that went for a 64-yard touchdown, Michigan shut down the Falcons. Air Force ran the ball 49 times for just 168 yards — 3.4 yards per carry. That was its second-lowest rushing output since 2014.
Brown could have his hands full next week with a rejuvenated Purdue attack led by new coach Jeff Brohm and veteran quarterback David Blough. But, given the results up to this point, does anyone doubt that he’ll have the defense ready to go?
3. Success with the ‘VIPER’
Khaleke Hudson hasn’t played offense. He hasn’t returned punts or kicks, either. Those are components of Jabrill Peppers’ game that Hudson will probably never be able to replicate. What the sophomore has done, though, is fill in capably at the ‘VIPER’ position, perhaps the most important spot in Don Brown’s defense.
Hudson, who played safety in high school, has been stout against the run. He’s also been a pleasant surprise in defending the pass. Against Air Force, he covered a deep route comfortably, knocking the ball to the ground. And his most impressive play in coverage wasn’t even his first recorded interception, which came late on a desperate heave from Air Force’s Nate Romine — it was an unsuccessful attempt at a pick, when Hudson nearly snagged a pass with one hand.
He doesn’t wear No. 5. But Saturday’s disruptive performance may have reminded some viewers of the last ‘VIPER’ Michigan had.
4. The 3-3-5 is here to stay
Michigan has spent most of its first three games in the new 3-3-5 stack formation that was debuted against then-No. 17 Florida. It doesn’t matter what type of offense the Wolverines have faced — their new scheme has successfully thrown off all of their opponents.
It shut down Air Force’s lethally efficient flexbone option Saturday, it shut down Cincinnati’s mess of an offense last week and it destroyed Doug Nussmeier’s pro-style, zone-blocking scheme in the opener.
Most importantly, Michigan still retains the flexibility to switch back to its more conventional 4-2-5 look. Redshirt junior nose guard Bryan Mone, who is subbed out in favor of redshirt junior SAM linebacker Noah Furbush in the 3-3-5, is still strong enough to take on double teams and beat single blockers. That may come in handy against heftier pro-style attacks such as Wisconsin, and being able to successfully employ both schemes may help the Wolverines confuse Penn State and Ohio State’s no-huddle spread attacks, as well.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Devin Bush Jr. will be an All-American
Michigan’s lightning bolt of a linebacker stood out once again, leading the team with 11 tackles Saturday. The sophomore is now on pace to finish the regular season with 18 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks. What may be scarier for opponents is that the stats aren’t a fluke. Bush has simply been that good, and in Brown’s scheme, which favors constant blitzes from the linebackers, it would be unwise to expect him to slow down.
Bush’s unique blend of speed, explosiveness and tackling makes him the complete package in the middle of the defense, and if he continues to pile up stats, the rest of college football will be sure to take notice — if it hasn’t already.