Dougal Brownlie/The Gazette via AP
Michigan’s game against Air Force on Saturday will come with a unique challenge when the No. 7 Wolverines try to start the season 3-0 — defending the triple-option offense.
Air Force should be far more of a test than Cincinnati or any other school Michigan might typically face at this stage of the season.
The Falcons went 10-3 last season, beating Boise State and Navy. They won their bowl game against South Alabama 45-21 as well.
Air Force has typically competed well against Power Five schools, playing No. 4 Michigan State and Jared Goff-led Cal to close games in 2015, and losing by just six to No. 19 Michigan in 2012 at The Big House.
To start this season, Air Force dominated VMI 62-0, totaling 647 yards of offense and holding VMI to just 95. It had a bye week to prepare for Michigan.
With the triple option, Air Force won’t throw the ball a lot. But when they do, it usually comes off of play-action, meaning Michigan defenders will have to stay alert throughout the game.
Midway through last year, the Falcons changed quarterbacks, inserting junior Arion Worthman into the lineup. He completed 8 of 12 passes against VMI for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
“The offense has just really been hitting on all cylinders since that point,” Colorado Springs Gazette Air Force beat writer Brent Briggeman said. “They’ve averaged 376 yards rushing per game with him at quarterback. He’s just a lot quicker than anybody they’ve had at that position over the last few years.”
Despite Air Force losing several offensive weapons to graduation, Briggeman says the team is just as athletic and that the offense is as good as it has been in a long time.
Sixteen different players ran the ball for 457 yards against VMI. There won’t be that many rushers against Michigan.
The group is led by senior running back Timothy McVey, who ran 10 times for 98 yards and a touchdown in week one. He is the program’s most efficient runner of all time, leading Air Force in career yards per carry (8.54) and ranking second in yards per catch (27.5).
Air Force will also rush with its fullback, junior Parker Wilson, and give carries to its Z receivers (slot), junior Ronald Cleveland and senior Tyler Williams.
“If the defense gives them the fullback, then they’ll run the fullback a lot,” Briggeman said. “Obviously if there’s no space up the middle, that’s where you’ll see the quarterbacks, tailbacks and Z receivers.”
With an offense that’s so creative, Air Force has been able to put up yards and points regardless of the quality of the defense it's facing.
“Historically, when Air Force plays up like this, its offense has still turned out yards,” Briggeman said. “They averaged 5.5 yards per carry two years ago against Michigan State, they ran for 290 yards against Michigan in 2012. It’s not like they’ve been playing Utah State every week and now they’ll have to roll the dice and see how it translates.”
Air Force has a smaller offensive line, one that’s built for deception and quickness, and not pass blocking. Every player on the line is less than 290 pounds.
“They can’t just line up and withstand a rush from a team like Michigan,” Briggeman said. “They know that going in, and that’s why they build the offense that way.”
On defense, Air Force returns just one starter, but has several others who had extensive playing time last year, similar to Michigan. The unit ranked No. 10 (114.2 yards allowed per game) in rush defense last fall, despite playing the three of the four best rushing offenses in the nation last season in No. 1 New Mexico, No. 2 Army and No. 4 Navy. Air Force ranked No. 3 in rushing offense (317.4 yards per game).
For comparison, Michigan had the No. 15 run defense in the country last year, allowing 119.2 yards per game.
The Falcons will send the house on almost every play and from all directions, forcing opposing quarterbacks to deal with pressure and make throws over the top. That means they frequently leave their corners against wide receivers in man coverage without safety help.
It’s a gamble, but one that has worked out for the most part.
The best way to beat Air Force is to air the ball out. In 2015 Cal's Jared Goff threw for 467 yards and six touchdowns, while Michigan State's Connor Cook threw for four touchdowns.
“If [Michigan redshirt junior quarterback Wilton] Speight can look like Jared Goff or Connor Cook, then Air Force doesn’t have a chance,” Briggeman said.
Some quarterbacks can’t handle the blitz, as was evidenced last season when Boise State’s quarterback Brett Rypien went 9-of-26 passing, completing less than 40 percent of his throws.
Speight will have to be accurate on deep throws and be able to stand in the pocket where he likely will take some hits.
Senior middle linebacker Grant Ross is the leader of Air Force’s defense. He turned down a full scholarship offer at TCU to play for the Falcons.
“Air Force has to be able to perform reasonably well against the rush,” Briggeman said. “If Michigan’s able to pick up consistent first downs and get six or seven yards a pop in the ground game, then the passing attack becomes that much more dangerous because Air Force is going to have to have even more help to stop the run.
“You don’t stop the run and nothing else really matters.”
Junior safety Kyle Floyd is the leader of the Falcons young secondary, while sophomore Mosese Fifita and senior Santo Coppola are players to watch on the defensive line.
“I don’t think Air Force is going to go there and get embarrassed,” Briggeman said. “What they do offensively is so unique. There’s just so much discipline that comes into play, and you can’t beat an option offense on talent alone. They scheme against that.
"If Michigan is able to be disciplined defensively and do a decently good job of shutting down the offense then obviously it could be a blowout, but I think Air Force will hold its own offensively. Then it’s just a matter of what they can do defensively and what kind of weird things will happen — turnovers, personal fouls, strange things that can impact the game. I think it has a chance to be competitive into the second half.”
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