The sound that defined the Michigan football team’s 31-25 win over Air Force on Saturday afternoon?

It wasn’t the many renditions of “The Victors” that rang out from the Michigan Marching Band as the pageantry of college football returned to Ann Arbor for a 133rd season.

It wasn’t the raucous cheers that broke out from the Michigan Stadium crowd when senior quarterback Denard Robinson did what he does so magically, busting out for touchdown runs of 79 yards and 58 yards in the opening minutes of both halves.

No, it was the thunderous, agonizing groan that broke out whenever Falcons quarterback Connor Dietz ran towards the sideline and tossed the ball to his pitch man, usually running back Cody Getz.

The groan evoked disgust and anxiety, since nearly every time that Dietz looked to pitch it to Getz, the latter found himself defended solely by air — no Wolverine there to cover him, Getz had free reign with open space ahead of him until a Michigan defender could hustle over and try to save face.

The Wolverines had it covered on occasion, but not nearly enough. Getz went for 133 yards and three touchdowns for the afternoon, averaging five yards per carry, and he and the rest of Air Force’s triple option attack was almost enough to pull the upset in Michigan’s home opener.

After two games that have seen the Wolverine defense give up 863 total yards, the abilities of the rebuilt defense, which is inexperienced in several spots, are coming into question.

That yardage figure includes 537 rushing yards allowed — an astounding figure considering that Michigan gave up a total of 1,712 yards on the ground all of last season. (Slightly over three times the amount that the defense has allowed in just two games so far this year.)

The opponents certainly have something to do with it. Alabama is essentially a minor league NFL team, and the Crimson Tide is likely to roll over everyone it faces this year.

And Air Force presented a unique challenge, due to the complexity of its triple-option offense and the breakneck tempo with which it operates.

Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, a team captain and the leader of the defense, acknowledged the unit wasn’t up to par on Saturday. But he also was quick to point to the problems posed by the system the Wolverines were up against.

“Obviously, we gave up some points,” Kovacs said. “We didn’t get ourselves off the field at times when we really needed to, but at the end of the day, we’re not going to see an offense like this again.”

Last season, the improvement of the defense after two years of absolute woe was a revelation. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison appeared to be nothing short of a miracle worker. It was almost assumed, then, that Mattison would be able to work his magic again and keep things humming despite the loss of three starters along the defensive line.

The early returns say otherwise.

But growing pains along the defensive line were to be expected given the inexperience there. The more troublesome part of Saturday’s game was the play of the linebacking corp, which consisted wholly of returning starters.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan, the new recipient of Bennie Oosterbaan’s reinstated legacy jersery, made some big plays, especially late, but also seemed out of position at times. Fifth-year senior Kenny Demens and sophomore Desmond Morgan, on the other hand, were much less consistent, often unable to diagnose the complex plays that Air Force ran.

It reached the point that the latter two were replaced by a pair of true freshmen, Joe Bolden and James Ross III. Michigan coach Brady Hoke explained their playing time — as well as the appearances of several more freshmen on Saturday — by talking about their talent and his desire to keep everyone fresh.

That’s a dubious explanation — defensive line is one thing, but in a tight game, most coaches are reticent to rotate linebackers. It makes one wonder how confident the coaches really are in some players that were thought to be reliable options.

Given this staff’s track record, you would expect the defense to improve by leaps and bounds as the season goes on. The best way to get better performances out of inexperienced players is to get them experience, and that will continue to accrue. It’s possible that, by the end of the season, these first two games will be outliers.

And there was a silver lining from Saturday. When it absolutely needed to, the defense came up with stops. Michigan forced a turnover on downs when Air Force was driving to tie or take the lead late in the fourth quarter, and then repeated the feat on the Falcons’ final drive of the game.

But those were two bright spots on an otherwise dismal day defensively.

“I would say there is a uniqueness to the offense and the schemes,” Hoke said. “But at the same time, I think we’re a work in progress.”

The defining sound from Saturday was that groan, and the defining sentiment was worry.

Improvement should be expected, and Kovacs said he foresees as much.

But right now, as his comments show, even Hoke knows that unless the defense comes together, a Big Ten championship — the only way to prevent this season from being a failure, in the coach’s eyes — is out of the question.

— Estes can be reached at benestes@umich.edu or on Twitter: @benestes91.

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