Coming off a scare against Cincinnati, the No. 7 Michigan football team has faced a fair amount of criticism for allowing the Bearcats to hang around late into the game. Against Air Force on Saturday, the Wolverines have set their sights on putting that performance firmly in the past.
With the Falcons rolling into Ann Arbor this weekend, Michigan has a chance to finish its non-conference season on a high note before Big Ten play begins.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines take on Air Force:
1. Will Ty Isaac hit 100 again?
After starting behind sophomore Chris Evans in the season opener, the fifth-year senior running back has emerged as the leader of Michigan’s three-man rotation in the backfield with two consecutive games in which he has run for over 100 yards.
In his fourth year in the program after transferring from Southern California, Isaac has “capitalized on his opportunities” according to coach Jim Harbaugh. He rushed for a game-high 114 yards on just 11 carries against Florida, and in his second career start, he rushed for 133 yards — a career high — on 20 carries against Cincinnati.
Rather than acting as a complement to the shifty, speedy Evans — who had been expected to take over the lead rusher role this year — Isaac has taken over where last year’s starter De’Veon Smith left off as the power back of the Wolverines’ run game.
Isaac has yet to make his way into the end zone, but with his recent string of solid outings, there is a high probability that he will break that trend against Air Force.
2. How many points will the defense score?
21-17. The latter is the number of points Michigan’s defense has given up this season. The former is the number of points the Wolverine defense has scored.
Between two pick-sixes against the Bearcats and a fumble recovery in the end zone against the Gators, Michigan has not only played lockdown defense, but has turned stops into scoring opportunities as well.
While the offense and special teams units have made a considerable number of costly mistakes, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit has avoided a similar fate. Acting as the calm within the storm, the defense has provided a stabilizing force so far this year.
Air Force might disrupt that trend, though. With their triple-option style offense, the Falcons could pose a strong challenge to the Wolverines’ defense. From trick plays to deceptive schemes, Air Force will throw its whole playbook at Michigan. While the Wolverines have said that they have been preparing for this game since the spring, their defense will have a harder time keeping up its scoring streak against the Falcons.
3. Will Quinn Nordin have another chance to show off his leg?
The redshirt freshman kicker made a name for himself after nailing 4 of 6 field goals, including two from more than 50 yards out, against Florida. Of Michigan’s 33 total points, Nordin scored 12. If he had made the other two kicks, he would have outscored Florida’s 17-point total all on his own.
With the performance, Nordin owns the record for the longest field goal made at AT&T Stadium (55 yards) and is the only freshman Wolverine ever to hit two 50-plus-yard field goals in the same game.
Against Cincinnati, Nordin had a noticeably less prominent role, though that’s actually more of a positive for the Wolverines’ offense as a whole than a negative for him.
With Air Force’s unpredictable offense, the Falcons could end up scoring more than expected due to trickery as opposed to skill. If that proves to be the case Saturday, Michigan may need Nordin to provide a stable source of points.
4. Can Speight avoid turning the ball over?
After two games where his position as the starter has been called into question, the redshirt junior quarterback has a chance to silence his critics against an Air Force team that leaves the secondary vulnerable with a blitz-heavy scheme.
Most of Speight’s wounds have been self-inflicted — from his two pick-sixes against Florida to his two fumbles against Cincinnati — so the onus is on him. One of the first lessons taught to young players learning the game is to take care of the football. Speight needs to heed that lesson against the Falcons.
Despite his mistakes, Speight has still completed 28 of 54 passes for 402 yards and three touchdowns. Throughout the week, his teammates have wholeheartedly defended their quarterback, depicting him as their unquestioned leader.
If Speight can just clean up the errors, he can convince the Wolverines’ supporters calling for his job to see him in the same light.