Air Force Recap: Remnants Of RichRod

Submitted by Ace on September 8th, 2012 at 7:36 PM

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In a game that felt like something out of the Rodriguez era, Michigan showed that while there's great promise for the future, the flaws exposed by Alabama are very real.

The Wolverines edged Air Force, 31-25, and the outcome wasn't decided until Jake Ryan batted down Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz's fourth-down throw with 1:28 remaining. Denard Robinson accounted for all but seven yards of the team's total offense. The defense ceded 417 total yards—290 on the ground—and failed to keep contain all afternoon.

Sound familiar?

It wasn't all bad, however. Robinson was masterful, completing 14-of-25 passes for 218 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception—one that deflected off the hands of Vincent Smith—while rushing for 218 yards and another pair of touchdowns on 20 carries. True freshman Devin Funchess emerged as a viable threat at tight end, becoming the first Michigan TE to eclipse 100 receiving yards in a game since Jerame Tuman. Devin Gardner looked like a wide receiver, hauling in five passes for 63 yards and a touchdown while running crisper routes.

The offense lived and died with Denard, as Fitzgerald Toussaint found little room to run—seven yards on eight carries, to be exact. The offensive line failed to get a push against Air Force's undersized D-line, doing little to ease concerns from last week's debacle. By the second half, Al Borges had essentially given up on generating yards the traditional way, and he was justified in doing so.

Defensively, Michigan looked ill-equipped to stop the Falcon triple-option attack. The defensive line spent much of the day on their stomachs, unable to evade chop blocks or get any sort of push. Kenny Demens looked positively Ezeh-esque, letting blockers get into him again and again before being pulled in favor of true freshman Joe Bolden. Jake Ryan was all over the field, recording a career-high 12 tackles, but sometimes "all over" can be a bad thing—keeping contain was an issue. The final Air Force touchdown came when Desmond Morgan overpursued. The defensive backs struggled against the run as well, failing to shed blocks and come up to take the pitch.

When the defense needed a big play, odds are it came from an underclassman. Ryan continually redeemed his poorer efforts with critical stops, including two pass breakups on the final Air Force drive. Bolden replaced Demens and displayed the aggressive, instinctual play that made him a high school All-American. Fellow freshman linebacker James Ross spelled Morgan late and acquitted himself well after struggling in his debut against Alabama. Several other freshmen made appearances during the game's biggest moments, including Ondre Pipkins and Mario Ojemudia.

Last season's 11-2 record belied the myriad issues Brady Hoke faced upon taking over in Ann Arbor. After two games in 2012, those issues are at the forefront for the Wolverines. The lack of depth on the offensive line means Michigan must move ahead with the current unit—despite its ineffectiveness in the run game—unless they want to insert a true freshman. The defensive tackles will be a sore spot all year; the players expected to relieve that problem are freshmen or not even on campus yet. The offense still leans heavily on Denard, whose style doesn't always mesh well with the offensive philosophy of Borges.

The Wolverines came away with a victory, a fact that cannot be overlooked, especially against a team with a difficult style to prepare for in a week's time. Denard will still make magic with his feet—his touchdown runs were both exhilarating—and perhaps his arm as well—he looks much-improved from last year even if the numbers don't necessarily bear that out. The future looks bright, too, thanks to the major contributions from a number of young players already gaining crucial experience.

The overwhelming feeling in the aftermath, however, is that this team is still two years away from competing on a national level, the only level of success that matters at Michigan. Today's game had Rich Rodriguez's fingerprints all over it; as we know, that's a smudge that isn't easily wiped away.



September 8th, 2012 at 7:49 PM ^

This team can compete for the big ten championship, this is the only goal for the year. We are building for the future and I'm encouraged that we can do so and stay in the B1G race while getting the future of the program invaluable experience.

death by trident

September 8th, 2012 at 7:54 PM ^

The cut blocking was very effective.  On the TD where Ryan had to choose between QB and RB, Kovacs was his outside contain and got cut down in the middle of the endzone.  Thus forcing Ryan into a 1 on 1 situation that he had a 50/50 chance to win.

Space Coyote

September 8th, 2012 at 7:56 PM ^

Denard still has a lot of problems. His height will always be a problem on over the middle passes. Honestly, if he was 4 inches taller and had a higher release, his INT would have been an easy first down completion.

Worse yet, his timing was awful all day. His TD throw to DG was really late, and wouldn't have been a TD against better defenses. His 3rd down incompletion by the endzone to Jackson would have been a pick 6 against a better defense. His timing needs a lot of work, and he still looks jittery under pressure from the Bama game. He needs to regain confidence in his reads and needs more reps with DG and co. to get better timing, because the short and intermediate routes all depend on it, and it's far from being there yet.

Still lots to work on for both sides of the ball. But I'm still fairly, in not sceptically, optimistic going forward. And a win is a win is a win.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:28 PM ^

"he still looks jittery under pressure"

That, I think, is the core issue that Borges would love to fix, but it doesn't seem to be working.

This game has left me very unsettled.  I think Ace's article captures why -- because it's bringing back into focus some bad memories I had hoped to forget.

Bah ... maybe I didn't drink enough.


September 9th, 2012 at 12:24 AM ^

... even though he completed some passes, they didn't seem to be right where they needed to be.  He threw a little flare to Gallon (after Gallon came back across the formation) where he had to sort of turn back towards him to catch it instead of having the ball lead him out to the edge.

On the other hand, there were two 3-and-X throws where they flooded the short zones and Denard set, found an open guy and rifled the ball in for the conversion.  Those were exactly what, when and where they needed to be.

death by trident

September 8th, 2012 at 7:58 PM ^

Positives -

Denard is still Denard, maybe better.  Some of his throws looked really good.

Gardner will keep getting better, a pretty solid performance today.

Funchess - whooooo!

Ryan is only a sophomore.

Norfleet got a little bouncy on a kick return, making me stand up out of my seat.  It will only be a matter of time before he takes one to the house.

The freshmen linebackers are showing great potential.


September 8th, 2012 at 9:13 PM ^

I love what you have to say here. 

It was great to see Denard being Denard when running the ball. It's also very promising to consider how effective our passing game could be when you combine Denard's much improved mechanics along with the beast that is Funchess and Gardner's enormous potential as a deep threat.

Admittedly, I've got a 'glass half full' mentality, but if our OL can learn to run block again so Fitz can do his thing, our offense could be very, very special. 


September 8th, 2012 at 8:01 PM ^

It occurred to me that some of the younger players may have seen triple option more recently than the upperclassmen. There are a few high schools running triple option in Cincinnati--I'm sure Jibreel Black played against it in high school and while I don't follow thieir conference as closely I'll bet Joe Bolden saw it too.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:14 PM ^

But no one in high school runs it with the complexity that AF does.  Someone else said this in some preview, but AF has taken the triple option and put it on steroids.  They run a lot of misdirection and different motions/formations that you never see out of a HS team.  Hell, they run it more effectively than any D1 team.  The only thing GT has over them is scholarship athletes.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:05 PM ^

I thought back to the countdown video and his high shorts. Seemed funny then but now I wish he'd spent less time on his apparel and more on learning how to lead as a senior linebacker. You can't play MLB on your heels.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:08 PM ^

I still don't understand how some people think that RR would have won a B10 title or even a national title if he was given another year. Michigan just doesn't have the horses. The B10 is horrible this year. I hate to say it, but MSU is looking like the best team so far. Wisconsin and Iowa are pathetic. PSU is horrible. OSU looks ok, but as we all know can't compete in the B10 championship. Michigan looks terrible at the fronts both offensively and defensively. Fitz could only manage to gain 8 yards rushing against Air Force. That is a huge concern.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:19 PM ^

That about covers it.

However, I still think we have a good chance against MSU in A^2.

However however, before the season, I thought that whoever would win the M-little brother game would win the division and the conference. Now I think that even if we win, Sparty could still take the division because they might run the table otherwise while we could definitely drop a couple.

Still, you know what? Sugar bowl win in 2011. Young, building, still a legit shot to win the B1G in 2012. After 2008-2010, I'll take it.


September 8th, 2012 at 9:36 PM ^

because the entire RRod philosophy is to make your opponent face an impossible choice and gain a numbers advantage in the blocking scheme. A SR Denard and Fitz would have been perfect for his offense. Would score so many points it's ridiculous. 

Our D would give up just as many, though. If only we could have Hoke as HC, RRod as OC and Mattison as DC........the world would be perfect.

Alabama Wolverine

September 9th, 2012 at 8:15 AM ^

The day that Hoke hired Mattison, I said the same thing - if only we could keep RR as the OC. Well, I still have high hopes for Michigan's future but things like clock management (i.e. the end of the first half) and our lack of misdirection plays in the Alabama game does remind me about how fast and lethal our offense was 2 years ago. Arizona lit up Ok State yesterday like we used to do.

Blue boy johnson

September 8th, 2012 at 8:08 PM ^

As fans we've got 10 more guaranteed opportunities to watch M football in 2012; Might as well enjoy the growth process, cause after January 1st we will be wistfully counting down the days to the next M football game.



September 8th, 2012 at 8:09 PM ^

...but we didn't look that polished our first couple games last year either. EMU was, in some ways, similar to AF and we struggled. I think we'll get it, but it's going to take some time to get the frosh up to game speed. I have hope that Peewee, Gardner, Funchess and the OL will start to gel.  By the end of the year, we may see a similar transition as we did last year.


September 9th, 2012 at 12:17 AM ^

To me the big difference between looking unpolished this year vs last year (especially on defense) is the upperclassmen now have a year plus in the system.  While most of the dline are 1st year starters, they all saw time last year and should at least be familiar with the system and the techniques that the coaching staff preach.  The LB"s are all returning starters and outside of Ryan, the upperclassmen look like sh*t.


September 9th, 2012 at 12:31 AM ^

The Dline are all first time starters, and if you look at the DLine last year, it improved throughout the year. And, to be honest, this year's starters probably aren't as talented as last year's, which means that a lot more OL are getting to the LBs. The LBs are having to refine skills that weren't as necessary last year. I'm concerned by the OL, but they do have mostly new assignments, and they need to get chemistry together still. I guess I'm just saying, be patient. Give it time to come together.


September 8th, 2012 at 8:15 PM ^

Way back in 2007 after the Penn State game, Brian said that his head would explode if Michigan ever, ever punted from the 31.  Well... we punted from the 34 in this game.  Not quite the same... but basically the same.  So, yeah.


September 8th, 2012 at 9:08 PM ^

I'm a little fuzzy on the sequence, but weren't the two prior plays (1) a sack and (2) Denard under pressure chucked the ball to a linebacker with, thankfully, bad hands?

If I'm remembering it right, that series had a bad vibe to it. At the time I was happy to have avoided disaster and maintained field position. And we did get the stop--it was the punt that was allowed to drop, and roll, that was the reason we didn't get the ball back near midfield.


September 9th, 2012 at 12:29 AM ^

The play-by-play from SI shows:

15:00 2nd Mich 1st & 10 at AF25 Toussaint rush right for -1 yard to the AF26.
14:52 2nd Mich 2nd & 11 at AF26 Robinson rush middle for -8 yards to the AF34.
14:24 2nd Mich 3rd & 19 at AF34 Robinson incomplete pass to the right.
13:51 2nd Mich 4th & 19 at AF34 Wile punts. No return. Ball on AF10.

So yeah, 4th and 19 from anywhere outside of FG range, you punt even if you're a riverboat gambler.  51-yard FGs aren't usually within a college kicker's range, so even a touchback on the punt yields 20+ yards of field position relative to the FG attempt.

Brian's specific example (well, one of them) was "4th and four at the 31" - that's a far cry from this.