Preview: Air Force 2012
|WHAT||Michigan vs Air Force|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI|
|WHEN||3:30 pm Eastern, September 8st 2012|
|THE LINE||Michigan –21.5|
|TELEVISION||ESPN2/ABC reverse mirror (coverage map)|
|WEATHER||windy, mid-60s, slight chance of rain|
[HEY BOO-URNSERS: I know ain't no one gonna tell you what to do, but booing a service academy when they are introduced is a terrible idea. Let's not do that! None of you are reading this blog, probably.]
Run Offense vs Air Force
what up mr kotter, what up
After a comprehensively abysmal outing against Alabama, Michigan gets a slightly better matchup against the Falcons. Subtract 70 pounds from everyone on the Alabama defense and add serious engineering degrees for most: that's Air Force. Thank gawd.
Last week Air Force beat up on I-AA Idaho State. The Fighting Gutierrezeses were 2-9 last year, losing to the various Montana, Utah, and Washington I-AA teams by scores like 54-13. They averaged—wait for it—27 yards rushing doing so. This is not data.
We don't have much in the way of data we can take forward from last year's Falcon outfit since they turned over seven starters, but if we assume they'll be a lot like last year's outfit, Michigan should go buck-wild on what was the #109 rushing defense. The Notre Dame game featured in Ace's FFFF saw the Irish go for 266 yards on 29 carries, including a 78-yard run by Andrew Hendrix(!). Brady Hoke's old outfit and 2011 common opponent San Diego State put up 201 on 35 carries, with Ronnie Hillman going for 172. Undersized and heavily reliant on confusing the opponent with blitzes, Air Force stands little chance of holding up against any reasonably good BCS-level rushing attack.
Michigan should have one of those again. They've got Fitzgerald Toussaint back, and since this is an overmatched opponent Michigan will probably run Denard 30 times. I'm not sure we learned anything about Michigan in the first game for the exact opposite reason we didn't learn anything about Air Force in the first game; extrapolating from past seasons suggests Michigan will run riot.
Key Matchup: Offensive line vs getting push. This should not be a problem, but we're all spooked after last week's total inability to block any-damn-body.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the news. Which is less bad!]
Pass Offense vs Air Force
This isn't much of a strength either. In 2011 the Falcons were so bad defending stuff on the ground that opponents mostly just did that. Air Force was 6th in passing yardage allowed… and 81st in pass efficiency allowed*. Tommy Rees put up a 23/32, 261 yard, 4 touchdown line (with no interceptions!). Ryan Lindley's was 15/21, 209 yards, 2 touchdowns. They were not good a year ago.
Judging from their opener, they're still not good. Idaho State's Kevin Yost—woo!—put up video game numbers: 41/52, 355 yards, 2TD-1INT despite having no running game to speak of.
I wish I could give you more than the thousand-foot overview but playing Academy teams, especially early in the season, is an exercise in reading season previews that all say "these 18 new starters are at the Air Force Academy, and this is all we know." Bill Connolly:
So does identity trump the individual? We will find out in 2012. Jefferson, Warzeka and Kauth are all gone, but that's not even the half of it. In all, Air Force must replace its top two quarterbacks, top running back, three top receivers, top two tight ends, four of its top six offensive linemen, four of its top six defensive linemen, three of its top five linebackers, its top two cornerbacks and its best safety. And for good measure, the Falcons must replace their top kickoff returner and punt returner too.
The new guys don't have recruiting profiles, obviously. They're unknowns. Probably not very good unknowns, yeah.
The bet is that Michigan will have plenty of opportunities to find open receivers as Air Force plays a conservative strategy based around having a nuclear engineer at corner instead of Dee Milliner. The test for Denard will be confirming this site's positive opinion of his accuracy and not throwing any of those ohhhh shiiii passes we have come to know far too well in recent times.
The other thing everyone wearing blue will be looking for is progression from Devin Gardner after a debut that was equal parts promise and frustration. He'll be open, and Michigan will be throwing. Their ability to connect will be a big part of whether this is a comfortable victory or a nail-biter.
*[Pre-Snap Read, I like you, but man…
The Falcons have held 35 of their last 36 opponents under 300 yards through the air. Over the last five years, Air Force has allowed an average of 180.2 passing yards per game. Few teams in the country do a better job defending the pass.
Key Matchup: The classic here: Man vs Himself. Man, of course, being Denard.
Run Defense vs Air Force
This is going to be hairy. Michigan couldn't find a run fit to save their lives against Alabama and now they're going with what Connolly refers to "almost a Mike Leach approach to the triple option," running a small set of base option plays out of a blizzard of formations and alignments. Here's an Every Snap equivalent from their game with San Diego State last year:
That's a bit of an oddity since Tim Jefferson threw a whopping 36 times in that game, more than double his season average, as Air Force lost 41-27.
The Air Force offensive line is tiny but they just cut the daylights out of you and I saw most of Michigan's front seven react to that very poorly last weekend. A point in Michigan's favor: last year they rebounded from a crappy option performance against Northwestern to shut down Nebraska, and the critical guys on the edges and at safety all return.
New starting quarterback Connor Dietz is not wet behind the ears. He's a senior who's played with some consistency for three years. He had 678 rushing yards to his name before the year started and added 74 against Idaho State. Senior Cody Getz was the main guy last week with 218 yards on 17 carries. He's a 5'7" senior—Air Force is not large. As with all options teams, a blizzard of different players get carries.
Michigan will have to play the proverbial assignment football. More than that, they'll have to stay on their feet. Demens, Campbell, and Ryan have all had problems avoiding cut blocks in the past and will face a heap of them tomorrow. Keeping their feet and managing to pursue will help prevent eight yards plays from turning into 50.
I'm worried, but Michigan's best asset here is Kovacs, who was born to play against option teams. Safety in space against a tailback is sometimes kind of dangerous; not when it's Kovacs (and you're not TJ Yeldon). Big plays are more likely to happen on runs up the gut or the QB getting loose, and that should keep panic at a simmer instead of a boil.
Key Matchup: Kovacs versus tackles in space. In a universe not so different from our own, Kovacs is the best player on the Air Force defense (and probably an outside linebacker). Michigan will shoot him down into the box and use him in the space tackling role he excels in when he is not getting rolled by the Tide. A rebound day from him would cover up a lot of other mistakes.
Pass Defense vs Air Force
As with most option teams, the pass is just a keep-you-honest sideshow. Air Force attempted just under 16 passes a game last year; they opened 2012 by throwing eleven. Those passes are disproportionately effective due to their rarity. The Falcons averaged an impressive 8.9 YPA in 2011.
Like everywhere else, new folks man the QB and WR positions, so there's not a lot to tell you. Their #1 guy against Idaho State was 5'9" junior Ty MacArthur, who was mostly a runner a year ago. Dietz completed 53% of his passes in his first three years with the requisite high yards per completion.
Key Matchup: Not blowing it huge. Michigan will have to be careful here, as if the corners are never tasked with run support Air Force will adjust and blow out the safeties and bad news. If the corners get aggressive, that's a recipe for getting hit over the top.
Michigan's player of the game against Alabama came on special teams, whether it was Will Hagerup or Dennis Norfleet. Yay. Hagerup returned to his booming freshman ways, plastering six punts for an average of 51 yards each. Unfortunately, Michigan's crappy coverage…
this wasn't even the really long one
…saw those punts get brought back 16 yards each and Michigan's net punting is decidedly mediocre. Expect more of the same. You can't cover punts as long as Hagerup's with 20th century technology.
Brendan Gibbons did not attempt a field goal; Matt Wile was very good on kickoffs.
On the other sideline, Air Force only got two punts from junior David Baska in their blowout. Last year he averaged 41 yards a kick—eh. Senior kicker Parker Herrington was 15 of 18 last year, and those weren't just chip shots. Air Force was 14th in field goal efficiency last year according to FEI. Kickoffs were poor, though.
Key Matchup: Continue putting it through the uprights and booming it long ways, please.
that'll do, internet
- The entire defensive line is on their chests on the first drive.
- The linebackers are still running right with line slants.
- Denard's hypothetical Alabama accuracy turns out to be a mirage.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- "Guys, I plumb forgot the guy at quarterback has 2800 rushing yards the past two years. My bad."
- Jordan Kovacs has 15 immaculate tackles.
- The line throws various DL into the stands.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for Dee Milliner Is Thousands Of Miles Away, –1 for So Is The Rest Of Alabama, +1 for Run Fit Nyet, –1 for Now We'll Run Denard 30 Times, +1 for A Triple Option Team In The Week After You Played Alabama Seems Unwise, –1 for Denard/Fitz Versus Poor Rushing Defense Equal Confetti Explosion, –1 for And Now Denard's Accurate!, +1 for Maybe, +1 for And The Defensive Line Is Just Going To Fall Over All Day, –1 for Security Blanket Kovacs Was Born To Play This Game)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for Let's Avoid Inverse First Two Games Of 2007, +1 for Losing After Being A Three Touchdown Favorite Is Bad, Mmmkay, +1 for Drinking More After UFRing A Game Would Be Toxic, +1 for This Is Michigan Fergodsakes, +1 for Senior Denard Sendoff Season, –1 for Nonconference Games Are Exhibitions /bo'd)
Loss will cause me to... blame Dave Brandon.
Win will cause me to... exhale about the offensive line.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Air Force's defense hasn't been able to stop anyone on the ground for a couple years now and they're breaking in mostly new players. The leap from Idaho State to Denard and Toussaint is immense. The offensive line should handle the opponent a bit more easily than Jesse Williams and company. And Denard might be pretty accurate.
Michigan grinds on the ground and uses Denard as a sideshow. They stab themselves in the foot from time to time and there will be one drive snuffed out by a d'oh turnover. Other than that Michigan should roll down the field and put up points.
On the other side of the ball, Air Force will give you hives. Those linebackers were hesitant last week when they were playing an offense that just hands the ball off. Against the option there's a 50-50 shot the two inside linebackers run into each other on one play.
When Michigan gets it right, Air Force won't get anywhere. They'll get it wrong enough for this to be a close game longer than you're comfortable with it being unless the safeties come up huge.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Hoo, boy do we look like we need a lot of work containing the option. Air Force launches two knee-wobblingly long touchdown runs.
- Denard completes 65% of his passes, looks super(!).
- Fitzgerald Toussaint goes for 150 yards himself on around 20 carries.
- Michigan, 32-22