Michigan is undefeated through the nonconference schedule, completing its 3-game sweep of non-Big Ten teams with a 29-13 win against Air Force Saturday. The collective gasp of relief from the Michigan faithful among the 111,387 that filled Michigan Stadium was palpable.
Whew. Survive and move on to Purdue.
Air Force made Michigan grind out this win. The offense doesn’t have consistency or any rhythm to it through the first three weeks, which really isn’t too shocking. There are so many new moving parts, from three starters on the offensive line, five tight ends splitting time, and wide receivers that are, for the most part, experiencing their first heavy game action at the college level. Quarterback Wilton Speight is dealing with the brunt of the criticism for the offense’s lag but that’s too simple of an answer.
The Wolverines outgained Air Force 359-232 and owned the edge on special teams as redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin made all 5 field goals he attempted and freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones made his first game-changing impact as a Wolverine with a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown. The defense took the challenge of preparing for an option-attack offense few teams run and maintained good discipline throughout the game. Three plays accounted for 125 yards of the Falcons’ total. Takes those plays out, and the Wolverines limited Air Force to less than two yards per play.
Land of 10 went back and re-watched the game to find out if all the groaning about the offense was warranted and if the special teams and defense were as good as we thought. Here’s your Michigan rewind.
Play of the game
Peoples-Jones was replaced as punt returner in the second half last week against Cincinnati because he wasn’t doing things the right way. He wasn’t taking control of the return, or helping his blockers. Peoples-Jones learned his lesson quickly. It started when he called for a fair catch on his first attempt of the game in the first quarter.
He took it to another level in the third quarter. Air Force punter Charlie Scott got off a good punt. Too good of a punt, actually. It had good hang time and People-Jones had to go back a few yards from his original spot to catch the ball. When he did, there was no Air Force cover defender within 10 yards of him. That’s too much room to give People-Jones, who utilized blocks by Josh Metellus and David Long to get outside left, before weaving back towards the middle of the field and eventually up the right sideline to the end zone.
Only Scott had a chance to stop him, but Peoples-Jones showed off his strength by shrugging off the punter’s attempt to push him out of bounds.
The play was Michigan’s longest punt return for a touchdown since Steve Breaston’s 83-yard return score against Indiana in 2006. More importantly, it gave Michigan a 16-6 lead and energized the Michigan Stadium crowd.
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 16, 2017
Player of the game
Chase Winovich’s name is high up the defensive stat chart for this game, but even his totals of 9 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and 1 quarterback hurry accurately show how much a factor he was in containing Air Force. The redshirt junior defensive end kept his position against the option runs, stringing out plays and holding up blockers so that other defenders could make tackles. He played most of the game whether Michigan was utilizing four or three down linemen.
It seems Winovich also made the folks at Barstool Sports happy.
— Barstool Blue (@BarstoolUofM) September 17, 2017
Key moment probably unnoticed
Similar to the game last week against Cincinnati, Michigan was challenged by an underdog opponent in the second half. Air Force responded to the Peoples-Jones touchdown with a big-play TD of its own, a 64-yard pass from quarter Arion Worthman to Ronald Cleveland. Metellus got caught in the wrong coverage, leaving no deep safety help on the play, and Cleveland was able to beat Tyree Kinnel off the line on a slant pattern and then beat everyone to the goal line, cutting Michigan’s lead to 16-13.
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) September 16, 2017
The Wolverines offense went three-and-out on its next possession, giving Air Force the chance to either tie the score or take its first lead of the game. It did neither because the Michigan defense took out its frustration over the touchdown. Winovich sacked Worthman for a loss of 6 yards on first down. Rashan Gary forced a fumble by Worthman on second down, a loss of another 9 yards. Worthman got 2 yards back on third down but the Falcons punted the ball back to Michigan still trailing by 3 points.
Air Force’s final five possessions of the game resulted in on missed field goal after a 16-play drive, and four drives of three plays; three ended in negative yardage and a punt, the fourth in a Khaleke Hudson interception.
Things we learned
The red-zone offense is a mess
One touchdown and 8 field goals in 10 possessions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line isn’t going to cut it the rest of the season. Credit Air Force for beating Michigan to the punch often in the red zone, whether it was the Falcons’ linemen and linebackers slanting quickly into gaps disrupt plays, well-timed blitzes or just making good tackles in the open field. We broke down the failure of Michigan to do anything productive on four possessions Saturday. Speight has completed just 1 of 12 pass attempts in the red zone this season, for a loss of a yard. The Wolverines have run the ball 21 times in 33 plays in the red zone, netting 36 yards.
The lone touchdown came against Florida on the opening drive of the second half when Michigan trailed 17-13. Karan Higdon ran for 7 yards on first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, then scored on the next play behind solid blocking by left tackle Mason Cole. There have been negative plays, botched handoffs, missed assignments and other mistakes to account for the lack of success. It’s been a collective failure to this point.
The red-zone defense is not
To the contrary, the Michigan defense has faced only four red-zone drives this season. Cincinnati converted both of its opportunities into touchdowns last week, but Air Force got just 3 points out of its two chances Saturday. The Falcons lost 14 yards on three plays in the first quarter before settling for a field goal that tied the game 3-3. They gained just 3 yards on three plays in the fourth quarter.
The success in the red zone is attributable to the discipline players showed by staying with their assignments, as well as remaining aggressive. Defensive coordinator Don Brown wants his players to constantly be on the attack. That had to be restrained a bit against Air Force. The defense handled the challenge well.
Jim Harbaugh has patience and trust in players
The Michigan coach sat Speight for a couple series against Florida after Speight threw 2 interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Harbaugh allowed Speight to watch from the sidelines as John O’Korn led the offense, then reinserted Speight and hasn’t wavered on his support since. Speight hasn’t thrown an interception since.
You can add Peoples-Jones and sophomore running back Chris Evans to the list. Harbaugh returned Peoples-Jones to the punt return role against Air Force and the results speak for themselves. Evans lost a fumble in the first quarter after a 9-yard gain, giving Air Force a short field. The Falcons turned that possession into a field goal. Evans might not have returned to the game if not for an undisclosed injury to Ty Isaac, but given the opportunity he was re-inserted into the game late in the fourth quarter as Michigan attempted to run out the clock. Evans gained 12 yards on 3 carries, and he held onto the ball.
More freshmen, more freshmen
Defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon saw playing time in the first quarter, his earliest action in the three games, while safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell made his debut and contributed on special teams. He helped block on Peoples-Jones’ punt return and was in the end zone to celebrate with his high school teammate from Detroit Cass Tech. Linebacker Josh Ross had a tackle on kickoff coverage, pinning Air Force at its own 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Ty Isaac lost out on 2 long touchdown runs
Isaac left the game in the fourth quarter with an unspecified injury. The Big Ten Network’s Michelle McMahon reported it as a lower ab injury but there has been no confirmation from Michigan. Isaac missed out on his third straight 100-yard game by 11 yards, rushing for 89 yards on 16 carries. He would have had his 100 yards and a lot more if two long touchdown runs weren’t called back. The first came on what looked to be a 62-yard scoring run on the first possession of the game, but Isaac stepped out of bounds at the Air Force 30.
The second would have been a 45-yard touchdown but wide receiver Kekoa Crawford was called for holding on a downfield block. Isaac was credited with 26 yards on the run.
Michigan had to settle for field goals on both drives.
Wilton Speight’s footwork was better
We’ve been harping on too many high throws this season by Speight. Many of those attempts were caused by bad footwork and mechanics, but he didn’t have any such troubles against Air Force. Speight finished 14 of 23 for 169 yards. He made good decisions on a couple of incompletions, either throwing the ball away to move on to the next play, or put it in a place where only his receiver had a shot to catch it. The accuracy can still be better but it was improved.
Sean McKeon, Henry Poggi do the dirty work
Tight end McKeon and fullback Poggi helped open holes in the run game for Isaac, Higdon and Evans. Both, along with guard Jon Runyan Jr., were instrumental on Higdon’s 36-yard touchdown run with 1:02 remaining to finalize the scoring in the game. It was the culmination of good work they did all game long.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 16, 2017