Michigan's 'D' zeroed in on Air Force's triple option

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Maurice Hurst

Ann Arbor — For a Michigan defense that identifies with being all-out aggressive — consider the fact it is coached by a man the players call Dr. Blitz — facing Air Force and its triple option will be a study in discipline.

The seventh-ranked Wolverines face tricky Air Force on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, and the defensive players say they are well-prepared to face the misdirection offense led by quarterback Arion Worthman and well-executed by, among others, running back Tim McVey.

“They’ve been running it for how many years?” Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said this week. “So they know how to run and they know when to run it. They just know it down to the ‘T’ and they’re going to run it to the best of their ability. (We) just have to be disciplined. You have to trust the scheme and trust your teammates and do your job.”

In a sense, less is more is the approach for the defense. Again, it’s about discipline.

“That’s probably one of the biggest things we’re going to have to focus on is not trying to do too much and not trying to always make that play,” Bush said. “Just have to trust your teammates.”

Joe Hewlett, who ran the offense in high school at Northville High, has been leading the scout-team look in practices for Michigan. 

Way back in April, after Michigan’s spring game at Michigan Stadium and before the Wolverines left for Rome, defensive coordinator Don Brown made clear Air Force would be part of his focus during those final three practices in Italy.

Yes, that was in April.

“I’ve got to think about getting ready for Air Force and the triple option, so that’s going to be the majority of my time there,” Brown said at the time.

More: Michigan vs. Air Force: View from other side

He wasn’t joking, either. He admitted he studied Air Force film on the flight to Rome and during the three practices in Italy — and the last practice in Ann Arbor before departing — he had his defense work on preparing for the Falcons’ triple option.

“He’s always like that,” Bush said, laughing while discussing Brown and his early Air Force preparation. “He’s just one of those guys where if you take football out of his life, he’s not going to function well. Coach Brown is just one of those guys.”

But Brown did this knowing it’s difficult to prepare for the triple option in a handful of days, and by devoting time in the spring, he took away some of the mystery.

“We have prepared a lot in spring and we used some of those practices to get ready for what we’re going to face this week so that’s not a complete shock to us,” defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said.

“It’s not new to us,” Bush said.


Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said this week that Air Force requires extra preparation because of the multiple layers of the offense.

“They go back and forth between conventional and option football,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we’ve been studying.”

Defensive lineman Chase Winovich, after a practice in Rome, said he felt confident Michigan’s defense would know the Air Force offense better than the Falcons.

Hurst laughed when told of that comment and joked about banning Winovich from media interviews. There is so much going on in the misdirection, the defense, even in the back end, will require complete focus.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan vs. Air Force

“There’s a lot of things that go into it and there’s a lot of people you have to account for in the option game,” Hurst said. “It’s just really tough for any defense to have to switch your entire what you’re doing on defense just to play this one week then go back to a normal team. It’s really tough for the adjustments we have to make and making sure everyone’s really into it this week and understanding what we need to do.”

Offensive linemen will dive at the legs of defensive linemen, but Hurst said there’s no purpose served dwelling on that. He said he was uncertain if the linemen will wear knee braces.

“I’ve read a few teams that have been outspoken about the fact their players have been getting hurt (on cut blocks),” Hurst said. “As a football player you’re always liable to get hurt. Not something you want to think about it.”

Pressure will be on the front seven, but the defensive backs must also maintain discipline.

“The triple-option offense is a lot of deceiving plays,” safety Josh Metellus said. “People going one way and the ball going the completely other way. It doesn’t really affect us in the back end that much. All we’ve got to do is run to the ball and make sure we play our keys like any other week.”

Michigan’s defensive backs will be important in run support, as well, but as Bush said, players can’t get lulled into the taking attention from their assignment.

“Not falling asleep,” Metellus said when asked the biggest challenge for the secondary. “Just keep focusing on the run and they hit us with a play-action. We’ve got to stay on our toes.

“Safeties, we like to get in the run too, but we’ve got to play pass, first. They’ve got a couple good play-action plays that if you’re not paying attention or you’re falling asleep, they’ll get you. We’ve got to follow our keys, or they’ll hit us down the seam.”

Air Force had 647 yards in the season opener against VMI, including 457 rushing yards. The Falcons won, 62-0.

“They’re not going to pass the ball too many times,” Bush said. “If they do, we got something for ‘em.”

The Wolverines carried a high level of confidence while they discussed facing the Falcons this week, and a large part of that is rendered from Brown’s emphasis.

“We’ve been preparing for it for a long time just so we could get it in our heads because we only get a week of preparation,” Metellus said, “so he wanted to get it in our heads early so when we come to it we’re not lost.”


Twitter: @chengelis