QB Arion Worthman is a dangerous runner.
This is going to be a little different than the usual FFFF posts. Air Force is coming off a bye week; they crushed an overmatched VMI squad 62-0 in the opener; they return only six starters, five on offense and one on defense.
Another program under these circumstances may not even merit a full post, but Air Force is no ordinary program. Their success is based on plugging well-coached upperclassmen into their unusual schemes—a triple-option offense and wildly aggressive defense—to the point that, with a few exceptions, the personnel involved hardly matters.
So, instead of watching Air Force walk all over VMI, I went back to last year's Boise State game to get a feel for their scheme and how it functions against quality competition. AF's two most important offensive players starred in that game, too, so this should still give a decent idea of what Michigan will have to stop on a player-specific level.
Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
Air Force won't always line up in the flexbone. While head coach Troy Calhoun is very much a part of the Fisher DeBerry coaching tree, he's updated the offense in his 11 seasons at the helm, mostly by incorporating spread principles.
Beyond the two dangermen, don't get too caught up on personnel at the skill positions, as Air Force will rotate a ton. Sixteen different players logged carries against VMI, and six different players accounted for their ten receptions.
Yes, McCray lost his star until he cleans up his issues in space. He'll get a major test in this very game.
The base play. I highly recommend you check out EGD's diary on Air Force's offense, which was a huge help in putting this post together. The base play of their offense is the inside veer, which sets up everything else they'll do. EGD's primer:
Now, AFA is known for running its option plays out of numerous formations (and here is some VIDEO of them doing just that. But in the standard flexbone formation that the triple option is commonly associated with, there are two A-backs who line up just outside the tackles (and may be called “slotbacks” in this formation), while the B-Back aligns two yards directly behind the heels of the quarterback.
Okay, so: the triple option. The base play in the triple option offense is the “inside veer.” That is the core play on which the B-Back threatens the dive (attacking inside the OT), the quarterback threatens off-tackle, and the (an) A-back threatens further outside (the linebackers). Inside veer looks slightly different depending on whether it’s run against a three-man or four-man defensive line, and with Don Brown we really don’t know which one to expect, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just look at it against Brown’s basic 4-2-5:
The A-back (who'll be the pitchman) motions behind the B-back at the snap. The first read is of the defensive lineman to the outside of the playside guard (the circled WDE on this play); if he doesn't attack the diving B-back, the quarterback hands off to the B-back. If the quarterback doesn't give on the dive, his next read is the defender to the outside of his first read (the circled safety, in this case); if that defender goes after the QB, he pitches to the motioning A-back, who will attack the edge. If nobody takes the QB, he keeps it.
Simple enough, right? Now you just have to prepare for them to run it out of a bunch of different formations with several tricky constraint plays, all while making sure not to overcommit to the run and allow a deep bomb in the passing game.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? None of the above, really. This is still a flexbone triple-option system at its core, and that doesn't neatly fit into any of those categories. In this video from 2010, you can see them running the triple option out of Maryland I, shotgun two-back (with a shovel pass replacing the fullback dive), and flexbone sets:
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly basketball on grass; there's an interesting four-minute coaching clinic video of Calhoun talking about how AF runs inside zone if you're so inclined. (The short version: they want to get upfield in a hurry, so their back has two options, frontside A-gap or backside A-gap.)
Hurry it up or grind it out? You'd expect an old-school triple option team to grind it out, right? Wrong. Air Force is even tougher to defend because they go at light speed; they ranked seventh in the country in adjusted pace in 2016. Just because they keep the clock moving doesn't mean they're moving slow.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Air Force won their final six games last season after sophomore Arion Worthman stepped in for injured senior Nate Romine and never relinquished the job. Romine had averaged a hair under three yards per carry and three touchdowns in 95 attempts; Worthman rushed for 5.2 YPC and six TDs on 130 carries. While much of that came off designed runs, he's also quite capable of breaking the pocket and scrambling for a first down if his first or second read doesn't come open on a passing play.
Worthman is decisive, fast, and possesses laundry-dropping wiggle. This was a beautifully designed counter that he turned into a big play by making a man completely miss in space:
Worthman gets a nine here. He completely changed the efficacy of AF's offense last year when he entered the lineup.
Dangerman: Yes, Arion Worthman is the primary dangerman. In addition to being an electric runner, he's an efficient passer given Air Force's play-action, bomb-or-bust approach. Worthman completed 23 of his 39 attempts last year for 546 yards—that's 14.0 yards per attempt—with four TDs and two INTs.
Whether he can keep up that efficiency as a passer this year is in question, however, after losing 6'4" receiver Jalen Robinette, who did nearly all of AF's damage through the air last year. If not for an academic snafu and Air Force changing their stance on entering the pros before completing the two years of mandatory service, Robinette would've been a mid-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, and there isn't a similar talent to replace him on the outside.
There's still another skill position dangerman, however, in A-back Tim McVey, who finally got the team to stop listing him as Timothy this year. Like Worthman, McVey emerged over the latter half of the season as a big-play threat, averaging 8.5 yards and scoring ten TDs on his 83 carries while also leading non-Robinette Falcons in receiving. His approach is simple but effective: run fast in a straight line.
Michigan's outside linebackers and safeties will be tasked with accounting for McVey on the edge. One bad angle or missed assignment and they'll get hit with a chunk gain.
Zook Factor: Nonexistent. Calhoun is all about maximizing opportunities and part of that is being properly aggressive on fourth downs. He's an excellent coach.
While Calhoun has opened up the passing game, this is still a team that wants to run until it can't run anymore, and maybe still even then. In the Boise State game, an even contest throughout, Worthman attempted only five passes; he accounted for 26 of Air Force's 77 rushes. Their goal is to use the option and inside zone to stay on schedule; they don't generate a ton of explosive running plays—that's what the passing game is for—but they get a lot of 5-7 yard gains that keep the run as the primary threat.
EGD highlighted two other staple plays of the rushing attack that came up repeatedly against Boise State. The midline read is the first. It takes advantage of the defense overplaying the edge by attacking right up the gut:
The midline looks very similar to the inside veer, except for a few things. Probably the most obvious difference is that the playside tackle will cut-block the DE instead of leaving him for the QB to option off. That’s because the QB is not reading the DE; instead, he is reading the first defender outside the center—the 3T here—and will give the ball to the B-back on the dive unless that defender attacks the B-back. Note that here, the B-back attacks through the 2-hole (or A-gap, to the defense) between the center and guard. If the dive key attacks the b-back, then the QB pulls the ball and runs outside the guard (the 4-hole or B-gap), this making the dive key wrong. Click HERE for an example of Navy running the midline against South Carolina.
I spent a couple series trying to figure out why the heck AF wasn't optioning the three-tech on midline reads, then finally realized Boise State had made it a strong point of emphasis for their DTs to prevent interior offensive linemen from getting to the second level. This was a typical midline read in that game; watch as the defensive tackle to the top of the screen, who's supposed to be unblocked, latches on to the releasing left guard and literally tackles him:
While this was relatively effective, Air Force still got a five-yard gain out of it on first down.
The other staple run play is the "rocket toss," which is what you think it is: a quick-hitting toss to the edge that punishes defenses for loading up on the interior. Air Force used it as an effective short-yardage play against Boise, trusting McVey's speed enough to even run it to the boundary:
Passes are infrequent and tend to go for it all. EGD diagrammed a four verticals play out of the flexbone. They got a big play against Boise by running Robinette on a post route while the other receivers took what looked like vertical routes and sat down at the sticks:
That won't be as easy to complete without a 6'4" NFL talent on the outside, but a major benefit of the AF offense is these plays are often so open that the size and ability of the receiver doesn't matter so much. Michigan's cornerbacks will have to stay focused on the passing game even though they'll have increased run responsibilites, while the safeties cannot bust. Controlled aggression is the key. So too is the pass rush; Worthman took sacks on a whopping 15.2% of his dropbacks last year. Part of that is the offense, which calls for long-developing pass plays in obvious throwing situations behind a small O-line built for run-blocking; part of it is Worthman's attempts to extend plays even when it's unwise.
How will Michigan approach defending the Air Force attack? This screencap from the 2013 Boston College-Army game, when Don Brown was BC's defensive coordinator, indicates Michigan won't stray from the 3-3-5 stack that's been their base defense so far this season:
This is ideal. It's easier to stop triple option offenses with one-gap defenses instead of two-gap defenses, and Brown's 3-3-5 is an aggressive one-gap scheme. 4-3 teams often adjust their linebackers so the MIKE has extra depth behind the nose tackle, giving him extra time to read the play and attack downhill; Brown's scheme already puts the MIKE at option-defense depth. Devin Bush will be a key defender in this game, and given the read-and-react ability he's shown so far this season, that's good news for Michigan. Mo Hurst also has a lot of responsibility at the nose, as he'll be a primary target for cut blocks as AF tries to open up the dive; Hurst should be able to handle that.
From there, it's all about gap responsibility and assignment football. Michigan had one bust by the backup D-line (specifically Reuben Jones) against Cincinnati that allowed a QB read keeper to go big up the middle; otherwise, they've been very sound this year. So long as the linebackers and safeties don't let running plays outside of them—and, in the latter's case, let passing plays go over the top—then Michigan should hold up. Air Force needs to consistently move the ball on the ground to stay in this one. Don Brown has spent a lifetime drawing up defenses to prevent that very thing from happening. By running his defense out of the 3-3-5 stack, he can still bring some heat from the second level—blitzing is usually a bad idea against option teams—without putting them at too great a risk, and that be enough to knock AF off schedule.
There's a ton of great stuff on the option offense and how to defend it, much more than what I could fit in this post. Some suggestions:
- Seriously, read EGD's diary.
- 11W film study on defending Navy.
- DawgSports on the keys to defending the Georgia Tech attack.
- The entire dang 1998 Air Force playbook.
- Smart Football (Chris Brown) on the midline and zone read.
- My attempt at a FFFF from the 2012 matchup. Ignore the defense, which has changed quite a bit.