ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan’s offense hasn’t had much trouble moving the ball down the field in three games. Well, except for one part of the field. The most important part of the field.
The Wolverines are 3-0 after a 29-13 win against Air Force on Saturday. It’s the second straight week they have sweated out the second half of a game because they didn’t fully capitalize on scoring opportunities. Michigan had the ball inside the Air Force 20-yard line four times but it never reached the end zone on those drives.
The red zone has meant “stop” for the Michigan offense this season.
The struggles on Saturday left Michigan with just one touchdown in 10 red zone possessions this season. It’s a good thing redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin has been good, making 11 of 13 attempts, or the Wolverines wouldn’t be as fortunate.
“We’re trying to score touchdowns,” coach Jim Harbaugh assured the media after the game.
The only successful red zone drive Michigan has had was in the third quarter against Florida in the season opener. Michigan erased a 17-13 deficit against the Gators with a well-executed 10-play, 75-yard drive that took 3 minutes, 7 seconds to complete with a 3-yard touchdown run by Karan Higdon. Since then, the eight drives inside the opposing 20 have resulted in Nordin field goal attempts. Forgive the young man, he did miss one of them.
Red (zone) means stop
Michigan has scored one touchdown on 10 red zone possessions through three games. Not only did the Wolverines fail to reach the end zone in four drives Saturday against Air Force, but they also finished with negative combined net yardage. Here’s a breakdown of the four red zone drives against Air Force.
|Plays-Yards in drive||Plays-Yards in RZ||Passing in RZ||Result|
|38-195||12-(-1)||1-6 (-1)||4 FG|
To Air Force’s credit, it entered the game having not allowed a touchdown in six quarters, dating to its bowl game last season. That streak ended in the third quarter when Donovan Peoples-Jones broke free for a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown to give Michigan a 16-6 lead, but the defense extended its touchdown-less streak to nine quarters. It was 1:02 from making it 10 quarters before Higdon used good blocks from fullback Henry Poggi, tight end Sean McKeon and others to get around the left side for a 36-yard touchdown run.
Michigan ran 12 plays in the red zone against the Falcons, 6 runs and 6 pass attempts. None gained more than 1 yard and combined they netted minus-1 yard. Quarterback Wilton Speight completed 1 of 6 passes. That completion to Grant Perry lost a yard.
The Wolverines had the possibility for a fifth incursion into the red zone but back-to-back sacks of Speight after reaching the 24 late in the second quarter forced Nordin to show off his leg from 49 yards.
“We were moving the ball, moving the ball, moving the ball up and down the field, getting into the red zone,” Speight said. “Maybe they’d change up the looks, they were holding blitzes until the last second and showing it when it was too late to check out of the play. It’s something we’ll have to look at the film and get better at.”
Michigan’s drives stalled at the Air Force 17, 8, 11 (after reaching the 7) and 18. At some point it might seem reasonable for Harbaugh to show a little frustration, forget conventional wisdom, Nordin’s accuracy and the strength of his team’s defense, and just go for it on fourth down near the goal line.
He hasn’t reached that point yet.
“I’m playing the percentage, playing to have a good call,” Harbaugh said. “Fourth-and-8 from the 8, do I ever lose my mind and say, ‘Let’s jam it in?’ Call the play the ‘Jam it in’ play?
“I’ve got to keep a steady hand on the tiller. We play to win. Yeah, we’d like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. We’ll keep at it.”