September 17, 2017
ANN ARBOR — It was third and goal from the 8-yard line in the third quarter when Ty Isaac took the carry from quarterback Wilton Speight.
Michigan led by three points at that point, mustering just three field goals and a touchdown. Ty Isaac would be met at the line of scrimmage by a scrappy Air Force defensive line, forcing another field goal.
Speight threw his hands up in the air in frustration.
“It’s one of those things where we’ll have to go back and look at the tape,” Speight said following Michigan’s 29-13 win over Air Force. “We were moving the ball. Moving the ball. Moving the ball up and down the field, then getting in the red zone.”
And then they would stall. No. 7 Michigan (3-0) racked up 359 yards of total offense on Saturday, impressive numbers against an Air Force team that was riding a seven-game winning streak and coming off a 62-0 shutout win in Week 1. But through a combination of defensive looks the Wolverines had not yet seen to some late blitzes, trying to score from inside the red zone was difficult.
The Wolverines made it inside the Air Force 20-yard line on four separate occasions, each time having to settle for a field goal. Freshman kicker Quinn Nordin was a busy man all day, tying the Michigan record for field-goals made in a game (5).
“We’re trying to move the ball,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We’re trying to get first downs. We’re trying to score points. We’re trying to put points on the board. That’s what we’re trying to do all game.”
It’s been part of a larger trend this season for Michigan, which is now 1 for 10 when it comes to converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. For those who don’t like math, that’s as many as 36 points left on the board.
The problems began on Michigan’s very first drive of the game, when it used a 15-yard catch from Tarik Black and 32-yard carry from Isaac to move the ball from its 25-yard line to the Air Force 18. What followed was three straight plays that totaled 1 yard: an incomplete pass from Speight to Grant Perry, a short pickup for running back Karan Higdon, then another incomplete pass from Speight.
“I mean, yeah, you get frustrated,” Higdon said. “But you’ve got to keep the course. Because when you start getting on each other and beating each other up, you’re not going to execute like we need to.”
Michigan would stall out just like that on its next three drives that reached the red zone, through a combination of incomplete passes and carries that were stopped at the line of scrimmage.
Through three games, the Wolverines are averaging 1.8 yards per carry on the part of the football field between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the end zone. It’s even worse when you factor in passing plays, dropping Michigan down to 1.1 yard per play.
Speight is 2 for 14 inside the red zone, but even his connections are going nowhere. A short pass to Grant Perry on the outside on second-and-goal from Air Force 8 in the third quarter, one play before Speight threw his hands up in disgust, was met by a waiting defender.
“It was one of those things like, ‘How did they fool us?’,” Speight said. “We thought we had the look that we wanted, the outside linebackers had depth in the high two-safety look, but as soon as I went down to kind of focus in on the snap, they brought the house.
“On the sidelines, coach Harbaugh was like, ‘I didn’t even see that coming. That was really well disguised.'”
Afterward, Harbaugh, who has spent the first two weeks defending his quarterback, had to defend his offense, too. Twenty-two of Michigan’s 29 points against Air Force came on special teams, via five field goals and a Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return for a touchdown.
It wasn’t until Higdon broke a tackle for a 36-yard touchdown run with 1:02 left in the game that the Wolverines offense scored.
“The run-blocking, the protection, has been really good,” Harbaugh said. “That was a big question mark coming in to the season, coming into the camp. What our offense would look like. What our offensive line would look like, replacing four starters. I think that’s been really good.
“We’d definitely like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. I think that’ll come. Our team is moving the ball. That’s a fact.”