Ann Arbor — The focus all week had been how Michigan’s defense would handle Air Force’s tricky triple option. But the defense, as has been the case through the first three games of the season, showed itself as the team's strength yet again.
Michigan’s offense continues to produce uneven performances, and that was particularly pronounced in a 29-13 victory over Air Force at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. The seventh-ranked Wolverines are now 3-0, and coach Jim Harbaugh and his players say offensive improvement is coming.
The Wolverines made four trips to the red zone and settled for Quinn Nordin’s field goals each time. For the season, Michigan has scored one touchdown in 10 red-zone trips through three games this season. The offense was nearly shut out against Air Force until Karan Higdon scored on a 36-yard touchdown run with just more than a minute left.
“I thought both teams played really good red-zone defense today,” Harbaugh said. “We had the right calls on at the right time. Pushed them back out of opportunities to score touchdowns. They held the lines well. Hats off to both teams for really good red-zone defense.
Wolverines coach commends red-zone defenses of both teams. Angelique S. Chengelis
“They called the better play on some of our red-zone throws and runs. Well done on their part.”
Nordin made all five field-goal attempts to tie a Michigan single-game record set by K.C. Lopata in 2008.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s defense, which had started some preparations for Air Force during spring practice, held the Falcons to 232 yards, including 168 rushing. Linebackers Mike McCray and Devin Bush each had a team-best 11 tackles. Chase Winovich had nine tackles, including 1.5 sacks. Michigan had nine tackles for loss.
Khaleke Hudson capped the defensive performance with an interception at the end of the game.
The Wolverines got a boost from special teams, as well.
Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones electrified the stadium early in the second half when he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown, giving the Wolverines a 16-6 lead. He also had his first reception, a 37-yarder in the second quarter.
“I thought we won all three phases,” Harbaugh said. “They play a brand of football I really like, which is you keep jabbing away and don’t make mistakes. Don’t turn the ball over. Few penalties. You get first downs, you push the opponent back in field position. They make you go beat (them). They don’t beat themselves. Our team was able to make the plays offensively, defensively, (and) special teams were a huge factor.”
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight was 14-of-23 for 169 yards and no touchdowns. He said the Falcons (1-1) did a good job disguising coverages in the red zone.
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight talks about the Falcons' defensive pressure. Angelique S. Chengelis
“We knew they were going to be fundamentally sound and really smart players, which they obviously were. They were doing a really good job of disguising coverages, disguising blitzes,” Speight said. “Often times in the red zone they’d show one thing until the last second and then they’d bring another look or they’d bring the house. We were making in-game adjustments. I was talking to coach Pep (pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton) on the phone a lot, and talking to coach Harbaugh as well, just trying to adjust on the fly like they were doing the entire game.”
In the third quarter on third-and-goal at the 8-yard line, Ty Isaac, who led the team with 16 carries for 89 yards, was immediately swarmed and thrown for a three-yard loss. Speight walked to the sideline, and looked frustrated as he held up his hands as if to say, “What just happened?”
“I probably should keep that in check a little bit,” Speight said. “Obviously, the frustration built up a little bit. It was one of those things like, ‘Yeah, they fooled us.’ We thought we had the look we wanted. The outside linebackers had depth, they were in a two-high safety look. As soon as I went down to focus in on the snap, they brought the house.
“When I went to the sideline, coach Harbaugh was like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t even see that coming. That was really well-disguised. That’s just one of those things they got us. You move on. But the bottom line is another win, and the Wolverines are 3-0.”
Michigan's Donovan Peoples-Jones talks about his TD in the victory over Air Force. Angelique S. Chengelis
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown had been preparing for facing Air Force’s triple-option since late in spring football to give his team a bit of a head start on facing something so unusual and atypical during a season.
Winovich said he and his defensive teammates loved the challenge. He has heard Harbaugh tell the defense they could have a special season, and so far through three games, the defense has been absolutely consistent for Michigan.
Now it’s a matter of getting the offense to be equally as effective on a consistent basis.
“If you’ve ever been on a football field and one side might not be going right, it’s easy to point fingers," Winovich said. "That’s the point where great teams don’t do that. Even if something isn’t coming along as much as you’d like, you have a job to do at the end of the day and you go out and do it. You execute it, you give as much as you can every play and you let the rest decide for itself.”
Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich on not pointing the finger at each other during times of adversity. Angelique S. Chengelis
Speight, whose primary targets were freshmen Tarik Black and Peoples-Jones — each had five catches for 55 and 52 yards, respectively — said the offense will improve. There is a substantial amount of youth and the offensive line has an all-new right side that’s still coming along.
“It’s hot and cold,” Speight said of the offense. “We started Florida (in the season opener) and we started last week with Cincinnati with two long touchdown passes, and we didn’t show today. That’s just something that’s a young group that we’ve got to keep learning from, keep building on and get better.
“Obviously, it’s big time the defense has been scoring, Peoples-Jones took one to the house (against Air Force). The offense knows we’ve got to do what they’re doing (on defense). Once we do that, I think we’ll be a really scary, complete team.”
Michigan running back Karan Higdon talks about being disciplined and focused in victory over Air Force. Angelique S. Chengelis
Higdon said the offense has shown flashes of what its identity could be.
“I think it’s going to become more revealing as the weeks come,” Higdon said. “I think we’re great, I think we’re physical, I think we know ourselves, we’re going to play hard, we’re determined and we won’t be denied.”