This week, the pregame discussion was again about unmatched recruiting classes. The dialogue touched on size disparities and about game-changing speed that one side had and the other side didn’t. Only this week, the roles are reversed.
Michigan, in week two, had suddenly become Alabama circa week one.
“They’re pretty darn quick,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. “They’re pretty darn big.
“And they’re very, very good. They’re gonna have a bunch of guys out there that had a bunch of stars after their name when they were in high school.”
Sounds familiar, and for No. 19 Michigan, its task this week should be familiar: Prove it can dominate Air Force just as Alabama dominated Michigan. This week, the gap in talent and athleticism is arguably larger, but that might not show on the field.
If Alabama wins through the sheer force of its talent, Air Force wins despite its lack of talent. The Falcons move, they pitch, they pull and block downfield. They fake, they counter and they option, and when your head starts spinning, they throw play-action passes over it.
Earlier this week, senior defensive end Craig Roh likened the Air Force triple-option attack to “mass chaos”.
“There’s Army in there, there’s Navy in there,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who referred to the other service academies’ offensive systems. “The midline series, the veer series, but then there’s also some pro-style offense. They give you a lot of looks, a lot of different formations. There’s a lot of window dressing that goes along with it.”
Calhoun said this year’s iteration of the triple-option relies more heavily than in years past on zone reads and toss sweeps with a good amount of play action passing. The Falcons are built to feast on a Michigan defense that looked unsure and undisciplined last Saturday.
“If your eyes aren’t where they need to be, if you’re not physical at the line of scrimmage, you’re going to have problems,” Hoke said.
Against Idaho State last week, Air Force rushed for 484 yards, an average of 8.3 per attempt, and scored an other-worldly seven touchdowns on the ground.
Michigan did not face a triple-option offense last year, and they won’t face another aside from the Falcons in 2012. Defenses, even strong ones, that are unfamiliar with the Air Force offense tend to struggle. The Falcons gained more than 400 yards of total offense against its three toughest opponents last year — Notre Dame, TCU and Boise State — including 565 yards against the Irish.
Compare that to teams accustomed to defending the triple option, Army and Navy, both of which held Air Force to less than 400 yards. The Falcons gained more than 250 more yards against Notre Dame than they did facing the Midshipmen.
“As a coach I’ll be dead honest with you,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “I don’t care who you’re playing, getting 500 yards is a lot of yards. Playing a wishbone, first of all, makes you be unbelievably sound in technique and assignment.”
For a run-heavy team, Air Force does not chew up much clock. Opposing teams averaged slightly more time of possession in 2011 than the Falcons. And opposing offenses last year averaged more plays per game (68) than Michigan averaged last year (66).
Yet when Air Force establishes the run (and doesn’t score on a quick strike), the wait between a punt and the next possession can be excruciating.
Michigan must counter with efficiency, something which offensive coordinator Al Borges admitted was lacking against Alabama. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson completed less than half of his passes (11-for 26) and Michigan converted just three third downs out of 12. The way to exploit the Falcons’ defense, though, is through the air. Idaho State completed 42 of 53 passing attempts for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
Michigan performs best when Robinson ignites the offense with his legs. After the loss to Alabama, Borges said he pulled Robinson aside and told him, “I don’t want you to think you lost the game, although there’ll be people who want to make you believe that.”
Borges continued: “We didn’t run the ball.”
The return of redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint from suspension helps, but by now, Robinson is a known commodity. To free up running lanes, Robinson will have to pass.
“You’re not going to hit them all, but if you can hit, you know, half your shots, it makes a big difference in the run game,” Borges said. “People just can’t force as fast. You completely change the mindset of the defense when you’re plucking away at them in the passing game.”
Michigan has the skill to dominate, but, like Alabama, it must impose its style and tempo on the game. Otherwise, Air Force will have a shot.
Of course, Michigan looks to dominate play, but does so with respect. Hoke said he addressed the team during the week about sacrifice and service. A campaign on Facebook, already with more than 2,000 people signed up, wants to change the student section’s customary “You Suck” chant after third downs to a less insulting “Go Blue.”
Someone asked Calhoun this week whether his team would be intimidated by playing in front of the masses at Michigan Stadium. Would his team crumble, like Michigan did, against a superior team? He chuckled.
“When you got to wake up when somebody’s banging on your door at 4:15 in the morning,” he began, “within 24 hours you’ve had all your hair cut off, and you have to be dressed in a certain outfit in 25 seconds, and get up and do all these extra push ups and flutter kicks at 4:15 in the morning day after day after day, after a while, I won’t say you’re numb, but you’re going to be able to move into a variety of elements and environments and be able to adapt pretty well.”
All week, Michigan talked about how the service academies never quit. In a way, this week provides an ideal test.
Michigan was dominated last week, but can the Wolverines dominate? Can they regain discipline? Will the toughness, the resiliency return?
“Coach Hoke said it on Sunday, we really need to see if we love the game of football,” said redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan.
“And I think,” he paused. “It’s just …”
He paused again, this time longer, as though formulating the thought in his head on the spot. He chuckled and then finished: “Who’s gonna be tougher? Whose team wants to be tougher. And we can’t have another game like (Alabama).”