Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wolverines Survive Fourth Quarter Meltdown against Air Force

Michigan successfully bounced back when they desperately needed to do so, improving to 1-1 after defeating the Air Force Falcons 31-25 in the Big House.

The Falcons, to their credit, made this a much closer game than it should have been. The triple-option offense is clearly difficult to defend and caused as much anxiety for the defensive coaches as it did the Michigan fans watching the game. So, I really don't know what to think of Michigan right now.

The defense as a whole looked decidedly mediocre, having what can only be described as a meltdown at the start of the fourth quarter (more on this later), but if the triple-option is really as migraine-inducing as defensive coaches claim it to be, then maybe we can forgive the defense a little.

Here are some game notes:

  • Thank God there are no more numbers on the helmets. This was probably my biggest "harumph" type of complaint last year when Michigan decided to keep numbers on the helmets from the Minnesota game on through the Big Ten schedule. Needless to say I am thrilled that the numbers are gone. The greatest helmet in college football has returned to its pristine glory.
  • Who says tight end was a weakness of Michigan's offense? The Wolverines didn't look like they missed Kevin Koger too much as Farmington Hills Harrison standout Devin Funchess (pictured) stepped up in a big way. Funchess (6'5", 229 lbs.) caught four balls for 106 yards and a touchdown. (Fun fact: Farmington Hills Harrison is traditionally a Spartan pipeline.)
  • Denard Robinson actually had a pretty good day passing, going 17 for 25, throwing for two touchdowns. He maybe threw two bad passes the entire game, and one of them ended up being picked off (the pass that was too high for Vincent Smith). In usual Denard fashion, Shoelace was electrifying on the ground, harkening back to the 2010 Rodriguez days.
  • Where in the world was Fitzgerald Toussaint? The feature running back who served his one-game suspension during the 41-14 rout from Alabama had a sparse 8 carries for 7 yards (ouch). Denard took much (or all) of the load, with 20 carries for a net 218 yards. I don't understand this. The whole point of getting Fitz back was so he could take some of the pressure off Denard. It really should have been him who got the 20 carries.
  • Elliot Mealer seems to be doing well at center. His shotgun snaps were crisp and right on the money. There was of course that one bobbled snap, but one bad snap amid 50 is acceptable. I was seriously worried that whoever was at center (it was looking like Ricky Barnum for a while there) would have serious trouble getting the snaps off a la Rocko Khoury in the first drive of the Sugar Bowl. For now, that doesn't look to be the case, which is good.
  • Overall I felt the offense was pretty efficient. Denard's big runs aside (still wished there was more Toussaint), the emergence of Devin Funchess and Devin Gardner as big targets have added a new dimension to this offense. Couple this with the fact that both Funchess and Gardner are in their first years at the positions and you're looking at some lethal threats down the road and next year. Seriously, those guys are dangerous.
  • The Meltdown: Michigan gave up several third-down conversations and a fourth-down conversion at the start of the fourth quarter, as well as a touchdown. That touchdown should have never happened. I fully expected Air Force to score a minimum of 10 points, and a maximum of 17, but 25? Michigan had been seeing the option attack all game and by the fourth quarter should have at least made some adjustments to counter it. The huge give-ups on third down, fourth down, and the 2-point conversion were almost certainly the low points of the game.
  • Contrastingly, it was Michigan's defense which effectively sealed the win on the crucial third and fourth down stops on Air Force's final two drives. Jake Ryan was responsible for giving up two touchdowns, but also was the one who batted down Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz's would-be pass on fourth down to seal the victory.
  • I am legitimately concerned about this defense. I am equally concerned about Michigan's chances at making a run for the Big Ten championship. Right now, it's not looking too good. As several Michigan blogs have already noted, a lot of this could simply be that Air Force's option attack is just so tough to defend that we can't tell if Michigan's defense has really gotten any worse or has just played two really tough games (defensively) to start the season.

I watched this game twice (once Live and once on Replay), and while I did feel a little better about the team on the second time around, that fourth quarter was still a nail-biter. A win is a win, but 31-25 felt like a little too close for comfort. As I said previously, this could all be because Air Force is "just one of those teams" that you can't 100% prepare for -- but still, I feel a little uneasy about the Big Ten conference play. Obviously, Michigan didn't exactly start out great in 2011 either. The hope now is that they improve week-to-week just like they did last season. We'll have more definitive estimates once Michigan plays Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Michigan goes on to face Massachusetts at home in what looks like the only cupcake of the schedule, which means that it will be the best chance for the Wolverines to fine tune their gameplan. After that is an early season showdown against Notre Dame in South Bend, followed by the conference opener against Purdue. After thrashing Navy 50-10, the Fighting Irish just squeaked by their game against the Boilermakers, 20-17.

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