Michigan 'D' prepares for Air Force triple-option offense

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Senior defensive end Craig Roh and the defensive line struggled against Alabama, and Air Force is the next big test. Buy this photo

By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 5, 2012

When the Michigan football team trudged off the field at Cowboys Stadium following a 41-14 loss to Alabama on Saturday night, it was clear the defense had a considerable amount of improving to do.

Veteran defenders lacked discipline on their assignments and missed tackles throughout the contest. The defensive line failed miserably at closing off running lanes. The secondary struggled in the absence of standout sophomore cornerback Blake Countess, who tore his ACL in the first quarter and will miss the rest of the season.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they’ll be trying to rebound against Air Force’s mind-boggling triple-option offense. Though the Falcons aren’t necessarily considered one of the premier programs that will show up on Michigan’s schedule this year, they do present a number of challenges for a defense that appears to be ailing early in the season.

“(It’s) just mass chaos — there’s three options on every play,” said senior defensive end Craig Roh on Tuesday. “It’s smoke and mirrors really, is what it is. The defenders just have to play their key and play their assignment.”

Michigan coaches and players this week have emphasized the importance of staying disciplined on the defensive side of the ball. Air Force is lauded an incredibly disciplined team, and if senior quarterback Connor Dietz sees a defender out of position, he will exploit the mistake by hitting the correct option.

Even Roh, who is one of Michigan’s most experienced defenders with 39 consecutive starts going into Saturday, has to be more disciplined in his approach than he was against Alabama.

“In fact, Craig Roh's biggest problem in (the Alabama) game was he was trying to do too much sometimes, which happens when you’re the seasoned veteran,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “One of the touchdowns, for example, where (fifth-year senior J.T.) Floyd missed the tackle in the hole — which would have been a two-yard gain and he got a touchdown on it — Craig Roh just tried to make the play inside and should have stayed outside.”

The play Mattison referred to was the Crimson Tide’s third touchdown of the first quarter — a nine-yard scamper by junior running back Eddie Lacy that could have been avoided had Roh stuck to his assignment when Lacy bounced to the outside.

But Roh understands what he needs to do against the triple option, and his experience of playing against Paradise Valley High School — one of his old Arizona high school rivals that is known for running the system — has helped.

To simulate Air Force’s unique attack, coaches have shaken up the scout team so that redshirt junior wide receiver Joe Reynolds is running the quarterback position in practice.

“(Reynolds) actually played the triple option in high school,” Roh said. “He actually has a gun for an arm, which is impressive. He threw a couple (Wednesday), and I was impressed.”

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun lives and breathes the triple option, though, and he recruits for his particular system, so it’s highly unlikely that Michigan’s scout team will be able to piece together the whole thing together. But the Wolverines have been flexible in practicing their game plan this week, trying to mimic the Falcons as best they can.

“They’ll never get close, but Joe Reynolds is coming down and doing some of the quarterback work, imitating Connor Dietz — he’s done a nice job with it,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “Up front, offensively, those guys are working at it. (Freshman) Ben Braden and some of those guys, it’s a little different because they’re 265 (pounds) and Ben’s a 300-pounder.”

Air Force’s starting offensive linemen actually average about 254 pounds, which is far less than Michigan’s average of 304 pounds, so it is understandably difficult to replicate the mobility of the Falcons’ offensive linemen.

If the Wolverines are looking for a silver lining, though, they’ll have to remember that Air Force’s undersized offensive line is likely much easier to play against than Alabama’s, which averages 314 pounds and is largely regarded as the country’s best.