Observations from a review of Michigan vs. Air Force film

Submitted by AJDrain on September 17th, 2017 at 1:15 AM

I did a quick watch of the Air Force vs. Michigan film after getting home from the game and here are my observations and a few comments:

1.) This was Wilton Speight's best game this season. He has shown improvement in each of the games he's played so far. He was 14/23 and by my count, there was 2 drops, 5 overthrows (which I'll talk about in a second) and then two other ones where there isn't much to talk about. The 2 drops were crucial, one by Black and one by Crawford. Both were great throws on 3rd down where the receiver got two hands on it that could've extended a drive and instead they were drops. If those two are caught Michigan could've scored more points and at least, Speight's completion percentage would've been 70% instead of 60%. As for the overthrows, this sounds pitiful, but the misses were much, much closer than in the past. 3 of the 5 misses were barely, barely off the mark. He's so close to everything clicking. Of the other two, both were footwork. One he had no chance to move his feet, about to be hit and forced to throw off his back foot. The other was just sloppy footwork. 

2.) Defense is still elite. Air Force is a bizarre team to play, plain and simple. The triple option is hard to cover but UM did a handsome job. One long QB run was it. Air Force runs it 27 of 29 plays and then runs a slant, Kinnell bites just a bit and the receiver is gone. If you want to think about it one way, they gave up 2 plays for 100 yards and 57 plays for 132 yards. Overall, 232 yards allowed and 13 points, not too shabby. They end non conference play having given up 3 points to Florida (deducting the pick sixes), 14 to Cincy, and 13 to Air Force, meaning 10 ppg. This is a top 5 defense in the country, folks. 

3.) Special teams are really good. Not so sure about our punter so far, but the punt and kick coverage units are stellar, Quin Nordin is one bad man, and DPJ is a freak of nature. DPJ is just as good as Peppers in terms of picking up those key invisible yards on punts, the 10 and 15 yard returns that hugely impact field position. He's a weapon and we need to see more of him on offense

4.) OLine was mostly alright. Air Force blitzed a lot and they struggled at times to pick it up. Still having problems with pull plays and stunts, but it's a work in progress. At the very least it's not a sieve. Onwenu, Ulizio, Kugler all first time starters, of course. 

Conclusion: This team reminds me a lot of 2013 Michigan State. Throughout the early part of the season, the situation was similar. An offense that dealt with major problems (albeit far worse ones than Michigan has, seriously), but a defense that was among the best in the nation, and a really good special teams unit. Even through the sluggish games in September, you just knew that if the offense figured it out, the team would be really tough to beat. Well, in late October, the offense figured it out, and the team wouldn't lose again, including a B1G title and a Rose Bowl win. Same thing here with Michigan. Special teams and a dominant defense is going to let this team win a lot of these early season games against lesser teams. And let me get this straight: if this offense can, at any time, put it together, then this team will be very, very hard to beat, by anyone. 

And honestly, I think this offense is close. WR's are still struggling to get open, but we've rushed for over 190 yards in every game this season. This is not an offense like Florida or early 2013 MSU, where they just can't move the ball. This team can move the ball. Unfortunately, it's just in spurts and it freezes when we get in the Red Zone. But the thing to remember is that this team. Is. Still. Young. We're three weeks into the season. If it's after the Indiana game and Michigan still can't finish drives, then we should sound the alarm. But let's give them 3 more weeks + a bye to smooth things out. We don't have to click in September, but we do have to click in late October. So let's just wait and see, take the positives out of this and hopefully, it all comes together next week against Purdue.

Oh, and one last note about Speight: he is the right guy for this team. His experience is very valuable and as a I always say, everyone criticizes him (and rightly so) for the throws he misses, but no one gives him credit for the ones he makes. Like to Black and Eubanks against Florida. Like to Crawford last week. Like the one to Black on the sideline this week, or the one that Crawford dropped even as Speight dodged two dudes and fired a bullet down the field. You have to take him through the good times and the bad times. As this site has noted, he's basically John Navarre. And if that means we'll end the season beating OSU, winning the B1G, and going to the Rose Bowl, then that's alright with me. We've seen who John O'Korn is, against Florida this year and Indiana last year. He's terrible. The last thing this team needs is a full on QB controversy. Instead, let's ride Speight, as it's the only way he can right the ship. Speight's working with a new set of dudes and he deserves a chance to keep grinding and trying to find consistency. 

A win's a win, 3-0, and on to Purdue 



September 17th, 2017 at 1:47 AM ^

Speight's our guy. The season is whether or not he can lead an offense good enough to win the big ten. Only time will tell, but this team is abundantly clear, and should be clear given how godawful John O'Korn is, that this is Speight's team. Win or lose, it's his team. He's the leader


September 17th, 2017 at 1:31 AM ^

the first few games for 2013 MSU and then they started clicking once Cook took hold of the job?

So they switched from a bad QB to a good one by actually changing players.  Wilton would have to flip a switch like 2015 Rudock for us to go through a similar transformation on offense.  It makes more sense for Rudock to have taken a half year in the system for things to click.  Wilton is in his third year in the system.

I do think the freshmen receivers will get better at route running and getting on the same page and things will continue to improve though.  Speight is better than this and I think we'll see that.


September 17th, 2017 at 1:51 AM ^

Maxwell and Cook started the season in a weird QB-sharing debacle. Cook siezed the job in Week 5, after the loss to Notre Dame, but even after he took the reins it still took them awhile to straighten it out. The team only scored 14 points against Purdue in mid-October. Cook was not an all-B1G guy right away and it took them several weeks to get clicking even after he took over


September 18th, 2017 at 1:14 AM ^

and 2 TDs in his first full start in that week 5 win at Iowa (but yes, he was pretty bad against ND).  You're correct, he wasn't all-B1G immediately but he was good and a first year starter who had a much steeper learning curve. 

We're rolling with a second year starter in his fourth year.  Chances of a light going on at this point are not as high.  But like I said, I think lights will go on for other guys that will make it a lot easier for Wilton.  I do think he should end up with good numbers eventually, but losing faith that he'll stop being a guy that makes one or two big mistakes a game.

I also think the play-calling will get better - it pretty much can't get worse!


September 17th, 2017 at 1:36 AM ^

Speight is not as sharp as he was in easier games last year. My hope is that this can be straightened out, he can become more consistent, and start converting these red zone opportunities.

However, the team gained fewer than 400 yards, which is the standard in college these days and definitely the standard for Michigan. There are a lot of moving pieces that aren't meshing that well right now.

And while I think people are silly to heavily criticize the coaches, the offense doesn't seem to be installing the same level of new things every week that was the signature in the last two years. I'd like to think that this is some combination of holding good stuff in reserve for tough opponents and repping the basics more frequently so that the young guys can gain command of the offense, but I'm just some guy at a computer making wild guesses.

One thing I think can be said is that for whatever reason Speight has been unwilling to make the same number of decisive, pivotal throws he was last year. He's not roping a pass into the endzone to a narrowly open receiver; he's looking for a guy that's wide open (isn't happening, maybe because they're young) or he's throwing a fade that will either be a fingertip catch or (actually, it's been always) too far for anyone to catch. It's cautious.

It's not totally unreasonable, given the quality of the defense, but it is certainly frustrating and there's no way the coaches are telling him to get paranoid inside the ten.


September 17th, 2017 at 1:43 AM ^

Totals are misleading.  Michigan gained under 400 yards because (a) they frequently had pretty good field position, (b) DPJ stole a possession from the offense, and (c) Air Force's strategy revolves around limiting the number of defensive drives they have to face.  Michigan got 7.3 yards per pass and 4.5 yards per rush (not sack-adjusted).  Against Cincinnati, 7.6 and 5.2, respectively; Florida, 8.4 and 4.4.

So, while the numbers aren't great, they're not out of line with previous games.  I give credit to Air Force's defense, which was able to bring quite a bit of pressure, and a conservative gameplan that was designed to make sure the offense didn't lose the game.


September 17th, 2017 at 1:56 AM ^

That's a reasonable counter-argument. I still basically disagree, though; the offense didn't score a TD until we were running out the clock at the end of the third quarter, and far too many possessions ended in punts. This isn't Wisconsin, it's an Air Force team with athletes that wouldn't be playing for Air Force is Power 5 teams wanted them. Yeah, complicated schemes, etc. Michigan should be able to roll these guys on talent alone.

And simply wasn't doing it. 

Things could well improve over the course of the season. Perhaps the coaches are coaching with that in mind (though that's just a hope, I don't know of examples of coaches actually focusing on future development at the expense of game week prep). Perhaps incremental improvements in multiple areas will result in large gains in consistency and explosiveness (lots of examples of this to rely on). 

But there's no way that scoring 22 points on Air Force in 2017 is anything other than problematic.


September 17th, 2017 at 5:54 PM ^

Sounds like you want Harbaugh to call that just jam it in play. I rewatched the offense in the second half this morning. I slow-mo'd every running play. Ulizio and Onwenu had some missed assignments and the backs had some missed reads. But what stood out to me was AF's safeties playing 6-7 yards off the LOS and attacking hell-bent for leather. They made a few stops at the LOS. You can't account for everyone when they play like that. You have to go over the top but we rarely tried that. On the Higdon TD, they were playing 6-7 yards back on 3rd and 16. That's stupid, but that's how they play. Being undersized they want to gang tackle. We beat them 3 times, but Isaac stepped OOBs on one run and Kekoa held on another. So a combination of bad luck and a bad penalty made things look bad. But I have to say, AF's defense is really good considering their size limitations. They disguise their blitzes really well and they flow to the ball well. On the first half incompletions our WRs got no separation. AF won 10 games last year. Yeah, they don't play in a P5 conference, but the MW ain't the MAC either. They are no joke.


September 17th, 2017 at 1:48 AM ^

That may be your standard, but pace of play varies so much from game to game and from team to team that it's much better to look at yards per play. Air Force ran the ball on almost every down. That bleeds clock. Michigan also got a punt return for a TD that wiped out a possession, limiting us to 65 plays. We averaged a respectable 5.5 yards per play. If we had run a more typical 75 plays in this game, we would have surpassed your arbitrary 400 yard standard.


September 17th, 2017 at 9:47 AM ^

But I do wonder about the throws you talk about. I thought I saw a lot more authority on Speight's passes last season. In particular, look at the OSU game, where he was tentantive in the 1st half, then in the 2nd, there was no messing around.

Perhaps someone here can also enlighten us//me on throwing to a spot. I felt that he did this well in his best games last year, and rarely did in his worst. 


September 17th, 2017 at 1:59 AM ^

I don't know if the following stats are an indictment of the offensive line or the play calling, but something went really wrong after the Evans fumble. These are the yards gained rushing on all 1st and 10 plays for Michigan in the game, by quarter:

1st Q: 32, 4, 9 (Evans fumble)

2nd Q: 1, 1, 3, -1 (listed as a sack)

3rd Q: 0, 3, 1, 1

4th Q: -1, 3, 3, 4

So excluding the first quarter, the team gained 18 yards on 12 carries on first and 10. That's not the way you want to start a series of downs. Could it be that the playcalling went completely vanilla after we built a little lead? Possibly. Or we never adjusted to AF's defense. Blame Speight all you want folks, averaging 1.5 YPC on 1st and 10 makes it tough for an offense to keep drives alive.


September 17th, 2017 at 9:46 AM ^

A.J., I don't think it is correct to say Speight is close. "As for the overthrows, this sounds pitiful, but the misses were much, much closer than in the past." Ha,ha  the firing squad says 'we are getting closer.'  I can remember offhand at least 2 terrible passes: he BADLY missed one sideline route (ball was delivered impossibly 3 yds out of bounds) and a corner fade route where I believe the pass is supposed to hit the corner pylon but wasn't even close!! It is so frustrating how he can be spot on sometimes, then WAY off the next. His receivers must be equally baffled/frustrated.  A classic case of "trying too hard" ? Just like that poor decision to try to ground a pass rather than take a sack and he fumbled when it slipped out of his hand. Not playing like an experienced leaader. 

Bo Glue

September 17th, 2017 at 10:29 AM ^

Whether or not JH et al want to play it close to the chest, it would not be surprising if these players just don't have a broad enough knowledge base to add wrinkles to the offense yet. They're young, it's hard enough getting the base offense down.

By the time the bye rolls around and we face some sitffer tests, they'll have a little more to work with.


September 17th, 2017 at 11:51 AM ^

but the D was decent but allowed numerous long drives. I see Purdue winning next week as our D is further exposed while O continues to struggle ..
BoilerUp ...24


September 17th, 2017 at 12:55 PM ^

I'm not so sure you're being sincere about the Debbie Downer bit. My sense is the defense did a remarkable job of maintaining discipline. Two big plays and minimal points to a scheme that's intended to punish teams that lose contain. A few less penalties would have made things even better. If I'm worrying about anything against Purdue, it's the offense's ability to complete drives—definitely not the defense. 


September 17th, 2017 at 1:13 PM ^

Numerous long drives?

  • 4 Plays, 15 Yards, Punt
  • 12 Plays, 24 Yards, Field Goal
  • 6 Plays, 42 Yards, Field Goal
  • 3 Plays, 3 Yards, Punt
  • 1 Play, -1 Yard, End of Half
  • 3 Plays, 1 Yard, Punt
  • 4 Plays, 75 Yards, Touchdown
  • 3 Plays, -13 Yards, Punt
  • 3 Plays, -2 Yards, Punt
  • 16 Plays, 73 Yards, Missed FG
  • 3 Plays, -4 Yards, Punt
  • 3 Plays, 27 Yards, INT

Care to point out the "numerous long drives" there?  Throw out the end-of-half kneeldown, and that's 11 total drives, 5 of which were 3 and out, 1 was a garbage time INT, and 1 was 4 and out.  You've got 12 plays for 24 yards -- greatly aided by the fact that Big Ten Network didn't have a reverse angle of the fourth down play to show when the Air Force runner was down -- and 16 plays for 73 yards, most of which came on one long run.

The touchdown was a busted coverage and a blatant missed hold on the interior.

The defense was very good. Not perfect, but very good.


September 17th, 2017 at 2:14 PM ^

Because the 12 play, 24 yard drive could ostensibly be considered a "long" drive, maybe? But then there's that "numerous" qualifier…

I agree, the defense was very good and especially so given the rarity of the scheme they went up against. I was concerned about their being too aggressive, but that did not play out. My only real complaint are the two ill-timed penalties that gave AF a new set of downs.


September 17th, 2017 at 2:21 PM ^

I Re-watched the game and tweeted out a bunch of clips.

I agree with you on Speight, but I don't remember the 2nd drop. Crawford was obvious, but which Black drop? The one the sideline that was sorta behind him and the defender?


If yes, I don't think that's a drop.

At any rate, Wilton is desperately trying to get this offense clicking. He's battling young receivers who aren't getting separation, and his own "forcing the issue."

I do believe they'll get it clicking but losing Black and/or Isaac will make it that much more difficult.


September 17th, 2017 at 10:04 PM ^

Nothing you said is inherently wrong, but your conclusion is not well supported. There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved and the 2 playmaker injuries don't help. The final assessment that we are on the cusp offensively is a glass 99% full point of view. 


It took us 58:58 of football to score an offensive TD against a service academy with guys 50 lbs lighter than us along the line. The offensive effectively scored 19 points. For all the talk about don't schedule Air Force, they also lost last year to such teams as Wyoming, New Mexico and the Hawaii team that we beat by like 8 TDs last year. And that was before losing a zilion starters. Against Florida the offense basically scored 20 (2x FG drives w/o a first down + D TD) and gave up 14. Against Cincinnati the O scored 20 while the D put up 16. We have 5 total offensive TDs in 3 games; ST/D has 4. We've scored as many TDs on defense (3) as we have passing the ball (3). We have an ineffective interior running game. Our running game basically consists of bouncing it to the edge and hoping to get the corner for chunks plays and that's been fairly successful. But that'll be less effective against more athletic teams. S&P+ has us 49th in O (and 2nd in D). That's below the median O ranking for a P5 school. 


Yep, we'll get better during the course of the season. So will our opponents, and so will the level of competition. Last year we crushed the weak teams we faced. This year we are struggling against Cincinnati and Air Force with lot of mistakes. I think we'll improve a fair amount but there is also a decent chance that once we start playing average or better B1G teams that our offense goes from uneven to sputtering. 


This team might be able to win with a 1997 formula. But right now, there are too many major mistakes and turnovers for that to be a viable strategy. That's the best path going forward, win games 21-14 and hope for points from ST and D, the occasional offensive drive and to win on turnover margin. But the level of sloppiness is too high to execute that strategy at a high level.