Friday, September 7, 2012

Air Force Preview: Mulligan

Time: 3:30 ET (ABC)
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, MI
Line: Michigan -21.5
Mood: How about a do-over, eh?
Remember this game? This week is going to be that, plus the triple option. 
The Exposition 
I spent the offseason searching the Internet for information on this year's Alabama team in preparation for last Saturday's game. I even took the time to break down each Crimson Tide position group, and cited Alabama-centric links in a significant number of posts here throughout the summer. When Alabama's DeAndrew White reeled in a touchdown pass after Courtney Avery slipped, I'm pretty sure I'm the only Michigan fan that thought, "Hey, that's the guy that scored two touchdowns against Vandy last season! Wait, this is terrible." Various Alabama fans even commented that I wrote the most comprehensive preview of 2012 Alabama football by anyone on the Internet.

I only mention this to say that this was clearly an enormous waste of time, since, deep down, we all knew that what happened was inevitable. Like the coaching staff, I will now have to shift gears from thinking about Alabama all summer in order to give to our other non-conference opponents some thought before we hit the familiar territory that is the Big Ten schedule.

The greatest things about this week are: a) We are playing Air Force and b) Air Force is not Alabama. Nobody is Alabama.

Air Force is just the sort of team that, when played right after a game like the one we just played, gives legs to tired sports platitudes about "trap games" and "hangovers." Air Force is not a particularly talented or athletic team, but they are the type of team that can be incredibly annoying, kind of like that one hitter in the lineup that always forces your ace to throw 10 pitches before launching a duck snort (that's a Hawk Harrelson-ism) into right field. The Falcons are that hitter in the context of Michigan's season. Why did the cleanup hitter (Alabama) bat first? I don't know, maybe you should ask DAVE BRANDON AHAHHKKSIH. Okay, enough about baseball and faux DB rage. Let's wring our hands about the offensive line and talk about ASSIGNMENT FOOTBALL and chop blocking and stuff.

Michigan Offense vs. Air Force Defense 
Per Paul Myerberg, Air Force returns a mere two starters; however, one of those two, safety Anthony Wooding, is no longer on the team. Also, keep in mind that this sort of turnover is not uncommon for the service academies, as they are effectively exempt from the NCAA's 85 scholarship cap. This doesn't mean that they'll be good or that all is well, but extreme turnover is a fact of life for the academies.

As Ace detailed on Wednesday, the Falcons play the increasingly popular 3-4. Does that matter? Honestly, probably not except insofar as it's not something that Michigan sees in the Big Ten. On the bright side, the team we just played runs the 3-4, which was good tactical practice for this week. However, going up against Saban's 3-4 before facing Air Force's iteration of the same defense is like wearing ankle weights all day only to shed them and then challenge a toddler to a foot race.

If you're into that sort of thing, Air Force was 78th in defensive FEI last season, right between Ole Miss and Purdue in the rankings. Against the tougher teams on the schedule--ND, San Diego State, Boise State, and TCU--they gave up an average of 43 points per game. This is not a good defense, and the fact that they gave up 21 to Idaho State underscores that fact. The Bengals (that's Idaho State) managed to pass for a whopping 365 yards in the process (6.9 YPA). ISU quarterback Kevin Yost went a ridiculous 41/52, throwing two touchdowns to zero interceptions. This is kind of weird, as the Pre-Snap Read preview of Air Force notes that the Falcons have only given up 300+ passing in a game 8 times in the Calhoun era (i.e. 2007-present). The fact that they did just that against Idaho State might signal that something is up with this Air Force defense.

Air Force did a good job of stopping ISU's attack in the first half, but the second half did not start as well. Yost led three 75-yard touchdown drives in a row to start the second half. Needless to say, Michigan will probably be able to pick up a few more explosive plays than ISU did (especially with Fitz's return in mind), but will definitely be able to engage in a couple old school 8-minute, 10-play drives. This is confirmed by the pictures from last year's ND game that Ace included in this week's FFFF post. Welcome to Bend-but-don't-breaks-ville, USA. Population: the Air Force defense. This week will be the complete opposite of last week in terms of press coverage from the corners. I'd put the odds of this happening to Roy Roundtree this week...
Roy Roundtree's just takin' a little nap, no worries 

...at approximately -1,842%. Roundtree will have all the time in the world to think of that hilarious joke he's going to tell after the game, right before running that quick slant for a guaranteed 8+ yards. Jeremy Gallon will have a field day in the YAC department against this defense. I look forward to seeing him turn that throwback screen into GOLD, JERRY, GOLD on multiple occasions.

The gameplan this week is fairly simple and not nearly as laced with fatalism as last week's was. Air Force got torn up through the air by Idaho State, and I think that this will end up serving as a nice confidence booster for Denard in the passing game. Denard will have gargantuan windows to hit and the pass rush should be practically non-existent.

Fortunately, Borges is not forced to come out throwing this time around. Assuming that Toussaint starts, Michigan will try to give him some looks early on. Vincent Smith should be able to make some hay in the pass-catching game; with the AF defense backed up like the offense has cooties, Smith will finger gunz his way to many an open look in the flats.

To make matters worse for AF, two of their top defensive players, linebacker Jamil Cooks and safety Anthony Wooding, will not be participating. To make a long story short, AF is too unathletic and too small to pose any sort of danger to Michigan's offense. The only way that Michigan runs into trouble is if: a) Denard et al turn the ball over, which is pretty much what AF is banking on you to do or b) all those open spaces and endless possibilities lead to an offensive gameplan that's a little too cute.

Michigan Defense vs. Air Force Offense 
While the Falcons' defense is somewhat of a disaster, the offense is something worth consideration, especially for a Michigan team that is [CLICHES REDACTED]. You know this by now, but Air Force runs the triple option, an arcane relic of a simpler time (a simpler time which still exists in certain places, e.g. Atlanta, GA).

Here's Pre-Snap Read on AF quarterback Connor Dietz:
As for this offense, it will help to have three experienced contributors in the backfield. One is senior Connor Dietz, who steps in at quarterback after spending the last three years backing up Tim Jefferson. Dietz has earned extensive action since 2009, even going toe-to-toe with Jefferson that fall for the starting role; while Jefferson won the competition, starting in each of the next three years, Dietz is no neophyte – he knows this offense as well as any player on this roster.
Last week against Idaho State, Ditez had the sort of ultra-efficient day that option coaches dream about in between updating their operating systems and oiling their metallic hinges (yeah, I'm talking about you Paul Johnson). He went 8/11 for 142 yards, good for a hilarious 12.9 YPA. That's what happens when you rush for 484 yards on 8.3 YPC. That is also what happens when you play Idaho State.

Still, Dietz is a senior and has been around, biding his time until being handed the keys to the old Model T that is the triple option offense. In 2011, the Falcons were a very respectable 32nd in OFEI, sandwiched between pass-happy Texas Tech and run-happy Nebraska in the rankings. As you would expect, Air Force ranks very highly in the "methodical drive" metric as well, coming in at 5th in the country. Naturally, fellow option schools Navy and Georgia Tech come in at #1 and #2, respectively. This category measures the percentage of drives that go for 10+ plays...fairly straightforward.

In a nutshell, as long as something completely ridiculous doesn't happen, like Courtney Avery falling down on one of Dietz's 10 passing attempts, the Falcons are not going to be lighting Michigan up with explosive plays. This is pretty much the sort of game that a guy like Jordan Kovacs lives for.

This will simply be a test of discipline and the ability to avoid [SPORTS CLICHES REDACTED]. There's a reason almost no programs with any sort of big name cachet run the option anymore: teams that don't aren't very talented. It's an offense predicated on precision and unyielding dedication to a system, which of course makes the triple option a natural fit for the service academies.

Obviously, this is not Alabama's OL we're talking about here. Air Force's linemen could probably be tight ends at Michigan, but that doesn't matter if Michigan's much larger defenders are being cut to the ground. When you're cut to the ground, you're useless. If, say, Craig Roh gets cut, it doesn't matter how big he is or how much weight he's added in the offseason: if you're on the ground, you're about as useful to the defensive effort as a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, just chilling there on the field where a defender should be.

As far as personnel goes, Air Force will of course pass infrequently and distribute its many carries quite liberally. Last week, the Falcons split 58 carries between 11 players. That many players won't carry it this week for the simple fact that AF is not going to be in blowout run-out-the-clock mode against Michigan like they were against Idaho State last week*, but Michigan still needs to be vigilant. Dietz carried it 7 times last week, and minuscule tailback Cody Getz led the way with 17. Fullback Mike DeWitt pitched in 11 carries of his own. Look at how triple option-y that triple option is!

As someone who played fullback in high school for a little bit, I have to agree with Ace: option coaches love giving it to the fullback like Al Borges loves not answering questions about bubble screens. You don't need to be a coach to understand why that is the case. The fullback has the easiest path to positive yardage, and a successful give read almost guarantees at least three or four yards (if you have a fullback worth anything). DeWitt didn't seem to have a great day last week, but I'm guessing that Coach Calhoun is aware of Michigan's issues on the interior. AF might be looking to feed DeWitt early on until Campbell and whoever else is hanging out on the inside can prove that they can stop it.

*Uh, I hope not?

What Needs to Happen, Fergodsakes
On defense:
  • Clich├ęs about defending the option that are nevertheless very true. Don't get cut. Don't get cut. Also, don't get cut. 
  • Clean up the tackling, por favor. Last week, we all stared on with our mouths agape as even Jordan Kovacs missed tackles. Well, the thing is...even normally sound tacklers miss them when players like T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler, and Eddie Lacy are carrying the ball behind a quasi-NFL offensive line. That won't be the case this week, obviously. AF is in the methodical drive school of offense, like all option teams. Don't give them any big plays, because Air Force does not have the athletes to create them on their own. 
  • Paging the Ministry of the Interior. Hello Will Campbell, Quinton Washington, Richard Ash, Ondre Pipkins, and, according to last week's starting lineup, Craig Roh (?). This is your chance to throw people around like you're in high school again. Of course, AF knows this and will be trying to avoid this outcome via the ignominious maneuver known as the cut block. 
On offense:
  • No freebies, Denard. There is really no reason for Denard to throw a pick like the one he did to C.J. Mosley last week. AF will give him time, simply because they do not have the talent in the back to do any pressing or much blitzing. Still, Denard did throw a pick against EMU last year, so anything is possible. Air Force cannot hang unless Michigan makes mistakes. 
  • The Michael Scott School of Management. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). It's tempting to get all crazy in the head against a team like this, one whose corners back away from receivers like the stretch of land between them is actually lava. It might not be pretty--again, think 2011 EMU game--but Michigan will grind out two or three longer drives and a couple shorter fields via defense/special teams. That should be enough. Let Fitz carry most of the load in the running game and let Denard dink and dunk on screens and wide open slants. Michigan would have to be incredibly unlucky or stupid to not score 35 points this week. 
  • Those guys are not Alabama so please block them better than you did last week. Pretty self-explanatory. Schofield got burnt to a crisp, Lewan was 2010 Lewan, and the interior was bullied back as expected. If Michigan doesn't move that line with ease this week, that almost universal 9-3 preseason prediction will be looking mighty optimistic. No penalties from Lewan, a bounceback performance from Schofield, a couple crushing pulling blocks from Barnum, and competence from Mealer and Omameh...that's all I ask. 
Predictions of Negligible Worth 
After last Saturday, I can't even begin to tell you how nice it will be to see Michigan run out and touch the banner. As Borges noted in his presser earlier in the week, Oregon recovered nicely after getting Rick James smacked in the face to start the season. Michigan is not last year's Oregon team, but they can still go on a pretty nice run the rest of the way. I still think that Michigan is a good if very flawed team, and the Alabama game's result has a way of distorting our understanding of this team's potential. 

This game could be a very good or a very bad thing for this team. The potential is there for a lethargic, frustrating effort, kind of like a higher scoring version of the 2002 Utah game. At the same time, there is not much to this team Air Force team. A strong collective defensive effort and a crisply executed offensive gameplan that doesn't reveal too much could serve as a galvanizing force, a pick-me-up of sorts as the team tries to distance itself from the memory of the Cowboys Classic. 

I will once again draw the comparison to last year's EMU game. EMU QB Alex Gillett passed five times all day, but the Eagles had some pretty substantial success on the ground early on. Michigan will likely take a quarter or so to gain its bearing vis-a-vis the triple option, and if Toussaint doesn't start (I'm writing this on Wednesday, but I'm assuming that he will) then who knows what we'll get from the non-Denard ball carriers. 

I get the feeling that AF will have a decent amount of success on the ground in the first half. The Falcons score a touchdown on a long drive in the first quarter but are kept out of the endzone the rest of the way. They do get close enough to kick a convert a couple field goal attempts. EMU ran for 207 yards at 4.5 YPC on a defensive line featuring Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, so Air Force probably ends up in that neighborhood of run game production against Team 133's defense. 

In the end, however, AF simply doesn't have the athletes to hang with Gallon, Toussaint, and Denard (although I doubt that Borges will want to run him like he did against EMU last year). I am also looking forward to at least one impressive instance of raw wide receiving talent from Devin Gardner. 

Score: Michigan 35, Air Force 13 

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