Friday, September 7, 2012

Michigan Must Bounce Back Against Air Force

The Michigan Wolverines will face a test of leadership and resilience after a difficult but expected 41-14 loss to No. 2-ranked Alabama as they go forward to their week two matchup against the Air Force Falcons.

Losing the season opener is always tough for any team, but Michigan has a chance to regain a lot of the momentum lost when they return to Ann Arbor for their first home game of the season. Following the loss to Alabama, there has been a lot of Chicken Little-type reactions (i.e. The sky is falling!) from the Michigan faithful, which isn't surprising. However, we need to remember that 1) the loss to Alabama was expected, 2) it does nothing to affect Michigan's run at a successful season or a Big Ten championship, and 3) Alabama was the most difficult non-conference matchup and possibly even the most difficult opponent on the entire schedule.

The game against Air Force likely won't be a cakewalk, but it should be significantly less challenging than going up against what was probably the No. 1 defense in the entire country, which means that this game is all the more crucial for Michigan to win. They simply cannot allow themselves to fall into the slump of an 0-2 start.

In its 2012 preview of the Michigan football team, written months ago, The Wolverine magazine acknowledged the possibility that Air Force could catch Michigan off guard, coming off the loss to Alabama:

Why Michigan Could Lose: The Maize and Blue are spending all summer focused on a single game -- Alabama in week one -- and who knows what their mindset will be in week two against Air Force if they falter versus the Crimson Tide. The strength of the Air Force attack, meanwhile, could be U-M's Achilles' heel -- the ground game.

This acknowledgement, however, didn't factor into The Wolverine's overall prediction for the Air Force game, which still saw the Maize and Blue winning 35-17:

One way or another, coming off a loss or a big win, Michigan should be motivated to meet the Falcons, and its offense will overwhelm them. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has averaged 324.4 yards of total offense and has accounted for 21 touchdowns in eight starts against non-conference opponents, and he should have another big game.

It won't be easy. Troy Calhoun (pictured) has established a reputation for regularly taking Air Force to bowl games. In the past five years as the Falcons' head coach, he has led them to a bowl game every year (a school record), winning two out of five, and his overall win-loss record currently stands at 42-24.

In 2011, the Falcons went 7-6 and finished 5th in the Mountain West Conference. Lindy's sports magazine on Michigan's upcoming 2012 season summarized the challenge that Calhoun's team has going forward (the second part we quoted in our 2012 Michigan football season predictions):

When looking for successful "mid-majors" in college football, it's hard not to think of Air Force. The Falcons are traditionally consistent -- they have won at least seven games in each of the last five seasons -- despite not having the talent pool of top-tier teams. A big reason for that success is the triple-option offense that opposing teams have trouble preparing for, and a bend-but-don't-break 3-4 defense. This year's Air Force team, however, will have trouble living up to that recent success.

Head coach Troy Calhoun has to replace last year's starting quarterback, running back, top three receivers, four offensive linesmen, three linebackers, the top cornerbacks and best safety. In short, it's a rebuilding year in Colorado Springs.

That didn't stop the Falcons from dismantling Idaho State 49-21 at home in their season opener, so rumors of "rebuilding struggles" were unfounded for at least the first week when most teams struggle, but Michigan is a different animal. Calhoun realizes that when he comes to the Big House his Falcons will be facing a far more talented team than an FCS opponent and, worse, a coach who he has faced before.

While at San Diego State, Brady Hoke matched up against Air Force as members of the Mountain West. Hoke's Aztecs lost to Air Force 26-14 in 2009 (a year when Hoke went 4-8 in his first season as the Aztecs' head coach), but defeated the Falcons (then ranked No. 23) 27-25 in 2010, a year when Hoke went 9-4 and led the Aztecs to a 35-14 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy.

By contrast, Air Force has been the only service academy that has gone to a bowl game for each of the past three years consistently. Navy went 9-4 in 2010 (losing to Hoke) and then 5-7 in 2011 -- and recently, the Midshipmen were destroyed 50-10 against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. After having a rare 7-6 season under Rich Ellerson, Army subsequently went 3-9 in 2011. While Hoke has successfully prepared for Air Force's triple option before, it's fair to say that Air Force may very well be the toughest of the service academies.

The Falcons typically win games on the ground. The triple-option rushing attack has been known to give defensive coordinators (or defensive coaches) headaches. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long (inventor of the 3-3-5) said that the option is "the only offense in the world on the chalkboard you cannot stop." Additionally, former Notre Dame head coach and current New Mexico Lobos head coach Bob Davie said, "I know that in all my years at Notre Dame, without a doubt, not even close, the toughest weeks [of preparation] were the weeks you played [Air Force]."

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison noted that the one the reasons Michigan's defensive line struggled against Alabama was because they failed to use perfect technique, saying, "We're not good enough right now to do anything other than play in perfect technique." So, naturally, when the question of Air Force (a highly-disciplined team the relies foremost on technique) came up, Mattison acknowledged the challenge:

As a coach, I'll be dead honest with you. This is an offense that put [up] 500 yards of rushing. I don't care who you're playing, 500 yards is a lot of yards. ... Playing a wishbone, first of all, makes you be unbelievably sound at technique and assignment, and if [the defensive players] slip up one time, it can be a big play. So, that's a concern. That's what our players understand going into this game. Plus, you're playing an academy. They play extremely hard. I've played against the academies eight or nine times now, and every time you play against them, you just leave with the utmost respect. We're going to have to bring our A-game on defense. There's no question.

So despite the losses to Air Force's personnel from last year, and the notion that Air Force is no where near as challenging as Alabama, Michigan's defensive coaches are still approaching the game with caution and due diligence. Should Michigan fans be worried? Is Air Force possibly better than we think they are?

On the Michigan blog Maize n' Brew, Zach Travis took some time to ask Jeremy Mauss of SB Nation's Mountain West blog about Air Force's option attack and why Air Force continues to run it. Mauss's response:

The main reason service academies use the triple-option or run-option offense is because of size restrictions. At least at the Air Force Academy there is a certain height and weight in order to gain admittance to the school. Which means that the offensive lineman are much smaller and a standard pro style offense with a fullback or I-formation would not be successful. Air Force will have smaller lineman, however that just means they are quicker which means there will be a lot of offensive lineman pulling to aid in an option play. With so few teams running it, that is why teams usually will struggle against that offense.

The main takeaway from that exchange is the note of "undersized linemen," a common occurrence among service academies. Is this a problem? Although the Falcons' option attack and focus on technique and discipline should counter a lot of Michigan's bulldozing rushing attack, imagine Michigan defensive tackle Will Campbell (6'5", 305 lbs.) going up against an undersized lineman from Air Force, especially after he managed to barrel through Alabama's offensive line at least once.

On offense Michigan should be more than capable of making Air Force frustrated. Feature running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is back and ready to go after his one-game suspension, and he should add an element to the Wolverines' offense that was lacking during the Alabama game.

And although there was quite a bit of criticism launched at Al Borges for executing a "failed" gameplan against Alabama, criticism which I felt the need to counter and rally to Borges's defense (i.e. there's just not much you can do against Alabama, guys), there has been a good if not rare amount of optimism coming from Brian Cook at regarding Denard Robinson's passing. In Brian Cook's analysis of Michigan's offense against Alabama upon further review, he came to this conclusion:

In terms of accuracy, Denard had a good day. Maybe very good. Those first two slants are in the receiver's chest. The problem was that [Alabama defensive back Dee] Milliner was also in said chests.
That kid is nasty, and Michigan's wide receivers could not get separation from him unless he fell down. Maybe there was a square foot in which the ball could be caught without Milliner making a play on it… maybe. I doubt it.
Sometimes when it looked like Denard missed, it was his receiver blowing the play.
And then you've got a couple of perfect deep completions plus a third that would have been if not for the Alabama safety coming over and tripping Gardner. He plain missed about as often as [Alabama quarterback A.J.] McCarron. The difference was in the defenses and the wideouts.

This was actually encouraging. Possibly really encouraging.

If Michigan's receivers were capable of getting separation -- or Michigan had manufactured some with play action Denard -- things would have been fine. If Robinson's accuracy continues against mortal defenses he'll have outstanding numbers and Borges will get a gold star.
In a weird way, I'm actually encouraged about Borges long-term since his response to a defense that stacks the box is to throw at it. Once you get the receivers and the line and [Michigan 2013 recruit Shane] Morris in, that stuff is going to work.

This is perhaps most encouraging when looking at the Notre Dame game in week four, considering that the Fighting Irish have serious problems in their secondary that Navy, an run-option offense, did not exploit and possibly could have kept the score closer than 50-10. However, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Michigan is now squarely focused on its first game at home against Air Force. Considering that the Falcons' defense is not quite the same (at least in terms of speed and power) as Alabama's defense, it should give us a good look into Denard's improvement as a passer. However, we should also prepare for the possibility that Michigan will run the ball with Toussaint and Denard far more than they will pass.

If the Wolverines have any hopes of putting together a successful season, matching the success of last year, and making a run at the Big Ten championship, they must bounce back from the loss to Alabama. Aside from the games against the Crimson Tide and Notre Dame, each non-conference game against Air Force and Massachusetts is a must-win for Michigan. We'll see this Saturday just how resilient the Wolverines are. Given that this is Michigan's first home game of the year, they should be motivated.

In a recent press conference, Brady Hoke was asked how the team was recovering from the loss to Alabama and going forward to the game against Air Force.

"You can't let one team beat you twice," he said.

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