Angelique S. Chengelis and Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News analyze Michigan's 29-13 victory over Air Force.
Ann Arbor — In case you weren’t sure, now you know. Michigan’s early-season strategy — born of necessity — has been revealed.
Do what you do best, and hope the rest gets better.
Michigan is playing to the strength of its defense, which is legitimately excellent. It’s playing around the flaws of its offense, which is legitimately concerning. The defense is good enough to win a lot of games, including a 29-13 takedown of Air Force Saturday. The Wolverines don’t give opposing quarterbacks much time to do anything, which, theoretically, is giving Wilton Speight and the offense time to find itself.
Well, the nonconference time is up and Michigan (3-0) still carries the same promise and puzzles. It has been tested into the fourth quarter of each game, although not pressured into the closing minutes. When the Big Ten season opens next week at revitalized Purdue, that could change. And counting on touchdowns from people other than offensive players is a dangerous way to play.
Air Force is a particularly tricky challenge, and the Falcons lived up to it. They expertly disguised blitzes in the red zone, befuddling the Wolverines. Michigan settled for five Quinn Nordin field goals, and that’s great for the redshirt freshman. But apologies to young Quinn, nobody wants the star of the offense to be the kicker.
In 10 trips inside the red zone this season (20 yards and in), the Wolverines have scored precisely one touchdown. Through three games, they have nine total touchdowns — five on offense, four on defense and special teams.
No style points
Hey, there’s no legislation requiring a team win in dazzling style. And let’s not quibble on this — if you only have one, you’d rather have a dominant defense than a dominant offense. But before Michigan can have a truly dominant team, it has to control more on offense, especially along that revamped line.
Speight gets most of the attention, which is to be expected. He hasn’t looked comfortable behind his line, and hasn’t developed a consistent rapport yet with his freshman receivers, although Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones are doing more and more. And because of that discomfort, Harbaugh and his staff have been especially conservative, not trying anything crazy or overly creative. Until you can run the ball and protect the quarterback, you have to, well, protect the quarterback.
Speight was 14-for-23 for 169 yards and was sacked twice, but didn’t throw an interception. The Wolverines rushed for 190 yards, but it was a tedious exercise against a well-disciplined Air Force team that had won seven straight. Ty Isaac led the way again with 89 yards, but he’s not necessarily a game-breaker or red-zone shaker. It goes without saying, this is not the same offense that led the Big Ten in scoring last season.
“We’d definitely like to score more touchdowns in the red zone, and I think that’ll come,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Our team is moving the ball. We’re trying to score touchdowns. You’re playing the percentages … Do I ever lose my mind and say. let’s jam it in? Call it the jam-it-in play?”
He laughed, although I think he seriously craves a jam-it-in play for this offense. But he — along with offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton — clearly is resisting the temptation to call too much.
“Gotta keep it steady,” Harbaugh said. “Keep your hand on the tiller. Play to win.”
This is the dichotomy of this Michigan team, at least so far. Others — fans, media, grocery-store tellers — are allowed to question Speight and the offense.
But Harbaugh and his staff are allowed some time to develop it, as long as the defense is so suffocating.
Air Force runs the ball on everyone and had its moments with 168 yards rushing. But quarterback Arion Worthman was sacked three times, threw seven passes and completed precisely one, a 64-yard TD when Michigan expected another run.
This was a day for the Wolverines’ speedy linebackers and swift ends, and Devin Bush and Mike McCray each collected 11 tackles. Ask them if they’d appreciate a little more help from the offense, they say it’s coming. Although they’re far more concerned with wiping the other offense off the field.
The Blue Wall
“Nobody can run the ball on us, nobody,” Bush said. “Week by week, I feel like we’re getting better, starting to unveil what type of defense we can be. You haven’t seen us lights out yet.”
They’ll have to be even more lights out, at least until the offense’s lights come on. Have you noticed, by chance, what Purdue has done, romping at Missouri Saturday? The Boilermakers throw the ball a ton with David Blough, and expecting Michigan to shut down every form of offense is a bit ambitious.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on his team's ability to pull away against Air Force.
So Speight will have to be better, and his receivers can’t drop key third-down throws (as Kekoa Crawford did), and the right side of the line has to be more cohesive. These are obvious statements, which is why Harbaugh isn’t interested in hashing them out. Instead, he swings wildly the other way, boosting confidence by piling up some impressive hyperbole.
“The run blocking, the protection, has been really good,” Harbaugh said. “The backs have been strong, the quarterback’s been strong. He’s quarterbacking the seventh-ranked team in the country, a 3-0 record, quarterbacking the winningest program in the history of college football. We just keep forging ahead, keep making improvements. So it’s good to be Wilton Speight. I like where our team is headed.”
The Wolverines haven’t yet faced a prolific passer, although that’s about to change. Their defense has allowed just 14 of 46 third-down conversations, and we’ll see if that’s about to get dented.
In the meantime, Speight will keep trying to find the connection he had with veteran receivers last season.
“It’s hot and cold, something as a young group, we have to keep learning from,” Speight said. “Obviously it’s big time the defense is scoring. And the offense knows we gotta do what they’re doing, and once we do, we’ll be a really scary team.”
The defense has bought them time with its dominance. But as the Big Ten season looms, the clock is ticking.