September 16, 2017
One week later, and the boos rained down once again.
This time, they came in the third quarter after a failed draw play on 3rd-and-goal from the eight-yard line. Air Force signaled it was blitzing, and it did, stuffing Ty Isaac in the backfield. Michigan’s offense trotted off the field, Quinn Nordin and the field goal unit trotted onto it and the crowd expressed its displeasure.
It was that type of day for the seventh-ranked Wolverines, which struggled to a 29-13 win over the Falcons.
The spread was 23 points. Michigan, though, certainly proved that Las Vegas is no expert — thanks to occasionally sloppy execution by the offense.
What could have seemed like an outlier compared to previous seasons has now become a very real trend. The Wolverines have entered the red zone 10 times this year, and have only one touchdown to show for it. Saturday, Michigan had the ball in the red zone four times. And while it didn’t exit completely empty-handed, kicking four field goals, the lack of touchdowns kept Air Force in the game.
Michigan outgained the Falcons, 359 to 232. But that didn’t matter as much when the Wolverines were putting only three on the board instead of seven.
The Falcons — true to their reputation and riding a seven-game winning streak — performed admirably. With their flexbone offense, they ground away at the Wolverines. Several nifty plays, good decision-making from their quarterback, Arion Worthman, and stout defense helped Air Force stay close with Michigan.
“We knew they were going to be fundamentally sound and really smart players, which obviously they were,” said redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight, who completed 14-of-23 passes for 169 yards. “They were doing a really good job of disguising coverages, disguising blitzes. Oftentimes in the red zone they’d show one thing until the last second and then they’d bring another look or they’d bring the house.
“We were making in-game adjustments. I was talking to Coach Pep (Hamilton) on the phone a lot, talking with Coach Harbaugh as well. Just trying to adjust on the fly like they were doing the entire game.”
The Wolverines came out of the gate determined to throw, beginning their opening drive with three consecutive passes. Their first run play nearly resulted in a touchdown when Isaac made a nifty cut and rumbled down the sideline before stepping out of bounds. The drive eventually sputtered at Air Force’s 17-yard line, and Nordin knocked in the first of a record-tying five field goals.
After Air Force was forced to punt, Michigan seemed on its way to moving the ball down the field again. Sophomore running back Chris Evans, though, fumbled on the ensuing possession, and the Falcons tied the game with a 37-yard field goal from Luke Strebel after a glacial 12-play, 24-yard drive that took 6:13 off the clock.
The Wolverines used a pair of explosive plays — a 37-yard screen pass to freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and a 30-yard catch-and-run by redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Gentry — to move down the field on their third drive. But the red zone issues continued, and Michigan was forced to turn to Nordin for his second field goal.
The Falcons would counter quickly. They marched down the field, gaining 42 yards, before their own offense faltered in opposing territory — apparently the theme of the day on both sides — and Strebel hit a 50-yarder.
A poor punt by Air Force did give Michigan enviable field position on its final possession of the half. But it ended with a familiar sight: Nordin and the field goal unit trotting out for a 49-yarder that gave Michigan an uncomfortable three-point lead headed into halftime.
It appeared the Wolverines were ready to pull away at the start of the third quarter. Peoples-Jones zig-zagged his way past Air Force’s punt coverage unit for a 79-yard touchdown.
“My punt return team did a great job of blocking,” Peoples-Jones said, “and they made my job very easy.”
The Falcons countered quickly, though. After attempting only two passes up until that point, they caught the Wolverines’ secondary off guard and connected on a 64-yard touchdown strike to Ronald Cleveland.
Michigan’s next two possessions began on Air Force’s side of the field — and both resulted in Nordin celebrating with his teammates after his third and fourth field goals.
After a 12-play, 73-yard drive, the Falcons seemed poised to make things interesting by cutting it to a one-score game. But the Wolverines kept Air Force out of the end zone and then caught a break when Strebel missed a 29-yard field goal wide left, preserving their tenuous nine-point lead. And with just over a minute left, the offense finally iced the game when junior running back Karan Higdon bounced a run outside and took it 36 yards to the house.
The 16-point win seemed to be another unsettling effort from a team with serious postseason expectations. Yet Jim Harbaugh remained unfazed after the game, saying that he is “happy” with the offense thus far — with the offensive line, the running backs and his quarterback.
Happiness aside, a continued inability to score touchdowns in the red zone could prove disastrous for Michigan.
But Harbaugh doesn’t think that’ll remain the case for much longer.
“Our team is moving the ball, that’s a fact,” Harbaugh said. “I think the red zone touchdowns will come.”