ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan secondary coach Mike Zordich finally has seen a change in Don Brown.
That’s because Brown, Michigan’s second-year defensive coordinator, probably is relieved now that he’s seen his defense grasp the particulars of facing Air Force. No. 7 Michigan (2-0) hosts the Falcons (1-0) at noon Saturday at Michigan Stadium, and is preparing to defend against a team that wields one of college football’s more challenging offenses.
“After [Tuesday], after how the kids practiced and how the kids responded to what we’re doing, our game plan and how we’re going to handle Air Force, I think he feels a little more relaxed,” Zordich said. “Not totally. Brownie’s not totally going to relax.”
For the first time since 2012, Michigan will face the the triple option, a scheme that gives the quarterback the option to hand off to the fullback or the tailback, or keep the ball, or pass.
“There’s a lot of deceiving plays, people going one way and the ball going completely the other way,” safety Josh Metellus said.
Brown didn’t speak to the media this week, but said as far back as spring that he was breaking down the Air Force offense. Brown even spent time during Michigan’s spring practices in Italy working with his unit solely on how to defend the offense.
“For me, we’ve got three more practices,” Brown said after Michigan’s spring game in April. “I’ve got to think about getting ready for Air Force and the triple option, so that’s going to be the majority of my time.”
Who runs the triple option?
There isn’t much in the Big Ten Conference — or in the country — that’s comparable to the offense Michigan faces Saturday.
Only seven FBS teams run a variation of the triple option: Army, Navy, Air Force, Georgia Tech, New Mexico, Georgia Southern and Tulane.
The service academies that run the triple option or an iteration of it do it almost out of survival mode. Schools such as Army, Navy and Air Force don’t draw the same athletes, or the same students. as traditional FBS programs. Instead, the academies have to get creative, both in whom they recruit and how they compete in football.
“If you’re in the conference with Ohio State and Michigan and some of those schools, you’re not gonna out-recruit those schools,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who coached at Navy from 2002-07, told Capital News Service. “So you better not be doing the same thing they’re doing. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
A test of discipline
The triple option is a test of discipline for defenses. Defending it is about making educated decisions on what to do, rather than working on impulse and instinct. It requires players to take an assignment and stick to it, against a quick offense that relies on the run.
In its 62-0 win Sept. 2 against VMI, an FCS opponent, the Falcons (1-0) ran for 473 yards on 67 carries and completed 10 of 14 passes for 190 yards. The Falcons had 17 rushers, including Tim McVey, who had 10 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown and 3 catches for 77 yards.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, and there’s a lot of people you have to account for in the option game,” defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “It’s just really tough for any defense to have to switch what you’re doing on defense, just to play this one week, and then go back to a normal team.”
What the defense anticipates
Michigan is a far cry from VMI. The Wolverines have established themselves as one of the nation’s top defenses in their first two games and are prepared for Air Force’s passing game.
“They’re not going to pass the ball too many times,” linebacker Devin Bush said Tuesday. “If they do, we’ve got something for them.”
Air Force’s offense also relies on blocking low. A low center of gravity is key for Air Force’s offensive linemen, many of whom are outweighed not only by the defensive linemen they face, but by typical offensive linemen.
Air Force’s starting offensive line in its season opener against VMI averaged 6-foot-2 1/2 and 282 pounds, while Michigan’s starting offensive line averages 6-foot-4 1/2 and 309 pounds.
Michigan’s offensive line
Air Force’s offensive line
Michigan’s defensive linemen are preparing to face an offensive line that utilizes skill and smarts, in addition to strength and power. The Wolverines linebackers will prepare for misdirection in the running game. Michigan’s defensive backs will prepare for long, downfield passes.
Finally, after months of preparation, Michigan will see what it’s like to face an offense predicated on creativity and deception.
“We’ve been preparing for a long time for this offense,” Metellus said. “We’ve put it inside of our heads. We only get a week of preparation, so [Don Brown] wanted to get this into our heads early, so that when we come to it, we won’t be lost.”