Air Force's ability to consistently get the edge on Michigan's defense was the most frustrating thing about Saturday's game, and many theories have been proffered as to what was supposed to be happening, why it wasn't, and why we will or will not die on the rest of the schedule.
I'm of the opinion that Michigan's scheme was predictable and that as soon as Air Force started blocking Kovacs they were out of ideas.
Here's Air Force's first play of the second half. Denard Robinson's just gone 58 yards to put M up 21-10 and a poor decision by a Falcon player to fall on a squibbed kickoff sets the Falcons up on their own 12 yard line. Michigan has just sat in the locker room for 20 minutes getting coached up; Air Force comes out and runs the same triple option they've been running all game.
It does not go well.
Okay: I called this "near half-flex" for Air Force. Michigan is in their 4-4 under, which I know is actually shifted towards the nominal strength of the formation and so is technically an over. Michigan aligns to field, not strength—so they would flip their formation if it was on the other hash.
Against Air Force, Michigan brought Gordon down into the box and made their formation basically symmetrical. Mattison:
Jake and Thomas were the exact same position in our scheme. A lot of people play the same scheme.
Kovacs is playing center field. Earlier in the game, he was not getting blocked and doing Kovacs things. Like this:
Air Force was all like Eff that to the A and started blocking him. That took out Michigan's edge defender and opened up the corner. Michigan didn't really adjust.
Air Force's "triple" option" wasn't really that. They occasionally ran the dive to keep the defense honest but when they did that the QB just turned around and give it, no read. Here they're running the option with the token dive fake. Already in the above frame, bad things are happening.
Will Campbell(1) is tackling an Air Force lineman who's trying to get out on Bolden. He'll succeed at this, allowing Bolden to flow freely for the rest of the play, but he'll pick up a second defensive holding call doing so. On the edge, Gordon(2) is the optioned guy. Michigan is playing him to pitch like they have been all game. Kovacs(3), is the destination of the flexback.
In a second or two, Michigan is going to eat cut blocks:
Thanks for participating, Clark and Morgan, but you've been elimidated. Try again next play. Meanwhile, downfield…
…the ref is ANGAR at Campbell and Jordan Kovacs is decidedly not coming up to stop the pitch.
Why is Kovacs taking that angle? Why is he not attacking the run? That's an eligible receiver he is in man coverage on. He's got no one behind him, and there are two other receivers going vertical. He has to respect this guy as a receiver, or he could give up an 88-yard touchdown.
At this point it's pretty obvious, but Kovacs doesn't have good options.
Gordon forces the pitch. Michigan has Bolden ready to hit the QB if necessary, but he doesn't know that, and that's not the scheme.
The scheme is getting cut to the ground 13 yards downfield.
Presenting yet another ten yard run on a pitch. WSG Will Campbell holding flag.
[After THE JUMP: Air Force twists its mustache!]
Oh, Wide Open, Smiths Edition
So that's bad. I don't really know if Kovacs can do anything about this without opening himself up to bad news. News like this:
That should have been a 62-yard touchdown, and it is the wicked alternative to the above. The teams have traded touchdowns and Air Force has it approaching midfield on second and six. Air Force goes unbalanced.
The highlighted guy is covered by a player outside of him. He can't go downfield. I asked Heiko to ask Mattison if this was taken as a run cue, and he said yeah:
MGoQuestion: A lot of times Air Force came out with two receivers lined up on the line of scrimmage such that the slot was an ineligible receiver. Do you coach your defense to use that formation as a run key?
“Yeah. We knew that. We knew that. In fact, if you watched that, you would have seen J.T. Floyd come over to him and know that he didn’t have to drop, and he didn’t. He became another run defender over there.”
Here that is a false key. I don't know if that's one Kovacs is using, of course.
A moment after the snap, Air Force shows a speed option. The covered-up guy goes on a magical journey to nowhere, but he's at least occupied JT Floyd; Taylor is covering the receiver further outside and won't make an appearance on this play.
Kovacs is all like NOT THIS TIME BUDDY with his downhill angle.
NOT THIS TIME BUDDY I HAVE THE OUTSIDE
This is a "Worst Waldo." Where is Waldo? He's the only guy on the screen.
Guy bobbles it and falls and does not score a touchdown. Michigan will hold on the one yard line and snuff out a fake field goal. Troy Calhoun will have nightmares about this WR derfing it for decades.
Things And Stuff
Dear Jordan Kovacs, please be everything. This is untenable for Michigan once the flexback started headhunting Kovacs. Air Force got run after run like the first play, and only once or twice was it a result of Arena-league forward motion before the snap. When Kovacs finally was like "screw it, I'm getting there," Air Force hit him over the top. Unless the guy has some sort of magic key that is always right about run, I don't see a way for him to not screw this up eventually.
After this play, Michigan backed Gordon off and stopped using this mirrored eight-man front that was exposing Kovacs to choices he could not be right on. This didn't really help. Afterwards Mattison manned up about it:
You know, not pleased the amount of yards that we gave up and not pleased with the option responsibility at times. You just want everybody to know -- I’ll take the blame for that as a coordinator. One thing we always talk about with our defense is we will always have enough bullets and always have enough in our package to be able to stop anything that somebody does. You know I think for a number of reasons, we maybe didn’t have enough or enough adjustments or I didn’t adjust soon enough to take away what they were doing.
"A number of reasons" == playing Alabama in game one.
When the second play gets posted as part of UFR I did ding Kovacs but the biggest minus on it is RPS, because it doesn't matter who you are: if you've got the pitchman and a deep responsibility, you are dead meat. Please no one talk about "assignment football"—here Kovacs has been assigned to blow up the enemy base and protect his own.
This is tweak versus no tweak. Michigan showed one thing and did it for almost the entire game. It was okay at first, but then the flexback started going for Kovacs and it was not okay. Michigan did not respond. Those responses may have left them open to those FB dives that never went for more than three yards, but something out of the ordinary could have put AF behind the chains and got them off the field.
This is like coming up against a read option team and never running a scrape exchange, and gets you torn up like it's 2005.
This is probably a Mattison weakness. I'm not surprised, nor do I think this means much except scheduling a triple option team is a bad idea. NFL does not feature a whole lot of this. He hasn't seen a true option attack in a long time. Will this be a problem in the future? I doubt it. Is this a reason to not schedule a service academy in week two after you play Alabama? Well… they won. If you got proper credit for taking down an Air Force I'd be fine with it. You don't, though.
Will Campbell holding espectacularrrrr. The first play here is the second Campbell holding call. These are rare, but both were legit. You can't tackle an offensive lineman to prevent him from getting to the second level, and Campbell did that twice. That was the only thing preventing Air Force OL from cutting the daylights out of Michigan linebackers.
Again, I'm not sure how much of this is on the linebackers. If the DL is consistently getting singled up and guards are releasing downfield on their first step, you are in a world of hurt.
Unbalanced alignment FTW. Calhoun threw out a run key on the big pass play by lining up a slot receiver in a way that made him ineligible downfield. This dragged Floyd to the other side of the field and eliminated him from the play. The chances Floyd can do anything about this with another guy going vertical to his side are not great, but there would at least be one DB in the area if Air Force doesn't make this alignment switch. Maybe he tackles the guy.
We suck at taking on cut blocks. That is all.