Quinn Nordin got his second school record in three games. [Eric Upchurch]
Michigan had their J. Walter Weatherman game today.
You could practically hear "...and that's why you don't schedule Air Force" echoing through the stadium as early as the first quarter, when the Falcons somehow used 6:13 of game clock to drive 24 yards in 12 plays for a field goal to knot the game at three apiece.
While Michigan's defense played up to their lofty standard, Air Force lingered in a contracted game that featured only 11 full drives from each team. The Wolverines could only move the ball in fits and spurts, generally going in the right direction until they hit the red zone, where all-too-familiar problems from the season's first two games cropped up again. Whether it was blown blocks, conservative playcalling, or missed opportunities, those problems forced Michigan to settle for field goals on all four of their trips to the red zone.
"They were doing a really good of disguising coverages, disguising blitzes," quarterback Wilton Speight said, noting Air Force did a particularly good job in the red zone.
"They had a better call than we had most of the time down there in the red zone," said Jim Harbaugh. "We'd like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. I think that'll come. We're moving the ball."
Speight finished an underwhelming 14-of-23 for 169 yards in what's become a typically uneven performance. He had a few excellent throws and lost some yardage to drops—most notably on a third-down pass that clanged off Kekoa Crawford's hands in the fourth quarter—but also missed a couple open receivers and couldn't lead the offense to a touchdown until the game's waning minutes.
DPJ couldn't be stopped once he got his eyes on the end zone. [Upchurch]
Fortunately for Michigan, while the offense found their footing, the other two units were rock solid. Quinn Nordin tied a program record with five field goals in five attempts, including a 49-yarder with room to spare to give Michigan a 9-6 halftime lead.
After the defense forced a three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, it looked like Michigan would finally break the game open. Donovan Peoples-Jones fielded a Charlie Scott punt that outdistanced the coverage, sprinted past the first wave, reversed field, and then tightroped the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown, the first of his Michigan career.
"My punt return team did a great job of blocking," Peoples-Jones said. "It made my job very easy. It just opened up like the Red Sea."
"I feel like great things are going to happen for Donovan Peoples-Jones," said Harbaugh.
Air Force countered with a rare explosive play, however, as receiver Ronald Cleveland got a step on Tyree Kinnel and took at third-down slant 64 yards to the house only four plays later.
That proved to be Air Force's only completion of the afternoon.
Somewhere in there is Air Force's quarterback. [Upchurch]
The defense, and the defensive line in particular, controlled this game. Against an offense that avoids negative plays at all costs, Michigan recorded nine tackles for loss and had three sacks on just 12 Air Force dropbacks. The three-man line of Rashan Gary, Mo Hurst, and Chase Winovich controlled the A- and B-gaps, allowing the back seven—led by Devin Bush and Mike McCray, who both finished with a team-high 11 tackles—to flow to the ball unencumbered.
By the second half, they were kicking the Falcons off the field with ruthless efficiency. Gary damn near beheaded quarterback Arion Worthman while forcing a third-quarter fumble the Falcons were fortunate to recover, inducing a roar of bloodlust from a previously stagnant crowd.
Their dominance meant two more field goal drives, plus a miss from Air Force's kicker, were enough to all but put the game away. Michigan was in clock-killing mode when Karan Higdon broke down the left sideline for a 36-yard touchdown with 1:02 to play.
"They play a brand of football that I really like, which is keep jabbing away," Harbaugh said. "They make you go beat them. They don't beat themselves."
That held true in this game. Frustratingly, it took the offense far too long to put the game away and still have fans feel comfortable heading into Big Ten play. Next week's trip to Purdue, a reinvigorated program under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, is looking far more perilous than it did a few weeks ago.
"We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements," said Harbaugh. "I like where this team is at right now."