5 keys to victory: Michigan needs to button down tackling against Air Force (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan was expected to run into a defensive buzzsaw in its opener against Alabama. But what about the Tide's offense?
It ran roughshod over the Wolverines, which was surprising.
Alabama, whose offense is noted for its conservative approach, racked up 431 yards against the Wolverines. It reached that total only twice against BCS teams all last year -- and that came against Tennessee and Ole Miss, the SEC's last-place teams.
Michigan, whose defense finished sixth in the country last year in points allowed, was expected to be much better than it was against Alabama. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said the reason for the breakdown was simple.
Too many missed tackles, many of which were caused by missed techniques.
The Wolverines will need to button up their tackling, with Air Force and its idiosyncratic offense rolling into town Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC)
"A lot of things we stand for, and the things we set out to do each year, we weren’t successful," Mattison said this week. "We’re not good enough right now to be able to not play perfect technique.
"When you don’t play great technique, somebody’s going to have to make an open-field tackle or somebody’s going to have to make a tackle that you hope the ability of everything to stay inside and in front would take care of. That’s really a lot of what happened in the game.”
The No. 19 Wolverines (0-1) follow up their season-opening loss with Air Force, which shares very little in common with Alabama. It operates out of a triple-option offense and runs the ball on almost every down, hoping to grind out first down after first down with incremental gains.
It forces defenses to play assignment football -- and Michigan blew assignment after assignment against Alabama.
The Falcons don't have the same kind of personnel as the No. 1-ranked Tide, but it will still produce a challenge. They rushed for a national-best 484 yards in last week's 49-21 win against Idaho State.
The Bengals are an FCS member, but Mattison said Air Force's prodigious output was still impressive.
“I don’t care who you’re playing, getting 500 yards is a lot of yards," Mattison said. "Playing a wishbone, first of all, makes you be unbelievably sound in technique and assignment. If you slip up one time, it can be a big play.
"So that’s a concern. That’s what our players understand going into this game."
Sound tackling is the foremost key to stopping Air Force's offense, which makes it the biggest key to winning this game. Four others:
Defensive line gets push
Missed tackles weren't the only defensive malady against Alabama. The line didn't get any kind of push, a foreboding start for that new-look front. Was it because Michigan's line isn't that good, or because Alabama's offensive line is just that good?
More will be known after this week's game. Air Force's offensive line isn't nearly as challenging as Alabama's, but its triple-option offense is predicated so much on the run, it hasn't finished outside the top six in rushing since 2005. Michigan's line will be tested, and it needs to respond.
Denard finds a groove
Denard Robinson has been electric in his Michigan career, but teams are beginning to find chinks in his game. In his past two outings, going back to last year, the quarterback is 20-of-47 passing (42.6 percent) for 317 yards, three touchdowns and three picks. More surprising, he was held to 13 yards rushing against Virginia Tech and 27 against Alabama -- his two worst totals since becoming a starter three years ago.
In his past two games, he rushed for just 40 yards on 23 carries. That's 1.7 yards per carry, well off his career average of 5.9 yards.
Robinson should have more success against Air Force, which allowed 431 yards of total offense last week to FCS-member Idaho State. Michigan needs its star quarterback to settle into a groove -- especially in the passing game. Defenses don't respect his arm right now, and are starting to cheat more and more against the run.
Courtney Avery steps in, steps up
Starting cornerback Blake Countess is out for the year with a torn ACL, and his replacement, Courtney Avery, did not play well against Alabama. He was torched for a 51-yard touchdown just three plays after subbing in.
Air Force's offense is predicated on the run, but will do up to about 10 play-action passes per game out of the triple-option -- and quarterback Connor Dietz is bound to come after the unseasoned Avery, not third-year starter J.T. Floyd.
Avery needs to get up to speed before facing Notre Dame in two weeks, then the onset of the Big Ten season. Or, he will get picked on all year.
Toussaint picks up where he left off
Tailback Fitz Toussaint eclipsed 1,000 yards last year, and most impressively, he did the bulk of the heavy lifting during the season's most-difficult stretch. He averaged 118.0 rushing yards in his final six games, five of which came in the Big Ten stretch run and the other against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
But he was suspended for Michigan's opener against Alabama after his well-publicized offseason DUI arrest. The Wolverines' tailbacks combined for 42 yards without him.
Michigan needs Toussaint to help take pressure off Robinson, who has been blistered in the past week for his ineffective play in the opener, as well as the rest of the backs. The Wolverines can string together drives when Toussaint's at his finest, which also helps keep the ball out of the hands of Air Force's triple-option offense.
The Wolverines didn't mind their defensive assignments, nor their defensive technique, and it cost them against Alabama. They won't make the same mistake twice -- and it helps they won't be playing the No. 1 team in America.
The triple-option is a different look than anything Michigan has seen in a long time, and there's only so much it can do to simulate the scheme in practice. It might struggle for a couple series to adjust to the option at game speed -- but not for long.
The Wolverines have the personnel and athletes to get stops against Air Force -- and Air Force won't come close to having the athletes to stop Robinson, Toussaint and a Michigan offense hungry for redemption. Michigan 41, Air Force 20