Wolverines vow to solve red-zone issues as Big Ten beckons
Ann Arbor — Michigan is 3-0, ranked in the top-10 nationally and, yet, the postgame discussions rightfully revolve around the offense’s ineptness in the red zone.
While the defense continues to operate in a fanatically aggressive manner as it moves up the rankings to No. 5 nationally, allowing an average 208 yards a game, and while the special teams have delivered, in particular kicker Quinn Nordin, the offense can’t quite overcome sputtering in key scoring opportunities.
The Wolverines remained unbeaten with a 29-13 victory over Air Force to close out their nonconference schedule and now prepare to open Big Ten play at Purdue, which is coming off a 35-3 dismantling of Missouri.
“(We’re) feeling good, feeling confident,” Michigan running back Karan Higdon, who scored on a 36-yard touchdown run against Air Force, said of the team as it heads into conference play.
The players say the margin that separates the offense from fully clicking is paper thin, but the gap seems a bit larger. Michigan has made 10 red-zone trips this season and have one touchdown. But the eighth-ranked Wolverines are averaging 32.6 points.
Four touchdowns have come from defense and special teams — including Donovan Peoples-Jones’ 79-yard punt return on Saturday — and five from the offense. The offense was nearly shut out of scoring until Higdon’s touchdown run with 1:02 left in the game. And the defense also has a safety this season
Nordin, a redshirt freshman, tied a program game record with five field goals in the victory over Air Force, and is now tied for first nationally in field goals per game (3.67). He also is averaging 14 points a game and is sixth nationally in scoring.
Nordin’s consistency and field-goal range have been enormous assists for Michigan as its offensive rhythm misses a beat and stalls in the red zone.
“We’d like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. I think that will come,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Our team is moving the ball, that’s a fact. I think the red-zone touchdowns will come. Keep a steady hand on the tiller. Play to win. We’d like to have scored more touchdowns. We’ll keep at it.”
Against Air Force, Michigan could not come up with a touchdown in four red-zone trips. Second-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight said he needed to watch the film to understand why the offense isn’t scoring touchdowns. The Falcons, he said, disguised their defense well in those red-zone situations.
“We were moving the ball, moving the ball, moving the ball up and down the field, then getting in the red zone,” Speight said. “Maybe they changed up the looks. They were holding blitzes until the last second when it was too late to check out of the play. We’ll have to look at the film and get better at it.”
The play-calling wasn’t exactly imaginative. The first two red-zone trips yielded the same exact results: incompletion, 1-yard run, incompletion. There was more of the same in the final two trips that combined for minus-two yards.
Running back Ty Isaac got stuffed for a 3-yard loss during one red-zone series on third down at the Air Force 8 and Speight, looking exasperated, threw up arms as he headed toward the sideline.
“I probably should keep that in check a little bit. Obviously, the frustration built up a little bit,” Speight said. “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.”
Much is made of a football team’s identity. The Wolverines’ defense clearly has one — it is relentlessly aggressive. They’re ninth nationally against the run, allowing an average of 82.3 yards. The Falcons, traditionally prolific in the triple-option, were held to 168 rushing yards.
It is impossible to put a finger on what Michigan’s offense is right now, though. There is youth, but there also is youth and inexperience on the defensive side. There is an argument it is tougher for younger players on offense to adjust as quickly as they can on defense, and that’s probably true, especially on the offensive line.
The right side of Michigan’s offensive line, with first-year starters Michael Onwenu and Nolan Ulizio, isn’t “there” yet and might really not be until next season. In red-zone situations, the importance of offensive line play can’t be underestimated.
But are there throws Speight should have made? Absolutely. Are there cutbacks that should have been made? Of course. Passes receivers shouldn’t have dropped or extended to make? Yes. Are there play-call adjustments that also should have been made? Indeed.
Bottom line, the quarterback has ultimate responsibility for moving an offense, but when other pieces are still not reaching their level of consistency, it becomes a group effort in red-zone failure.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Higdon said after the Air Force win. “We just didn’t capitalize on the little things, the little details that impacted us. We’ve just got to do our job.”
Michigan at Purdue
Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.
Records: Michigan 3-0, Purdue 2-1
Line: Michigan by 10