September 15, 2017
ANN ARBOR — It was last April, on a cross-the-world trip to Italy, when Don Brown broke from the college football norm.
Coaches are infamous for only wanting to discuss the next opponent, using cliche phrases such as “one game at a time” to dissuade eager reporters from looking down the road.
Yet there was the Michigan defensive coordinator, revving up for a series of practices on foreign soil, talking about Week 3 opponent Air Force.
“Because it’s so different,” Michigan cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said this week. “It’s a different deal. What we have worked on from April until now, you put that all aside and you’re doing something totally different.”
Of concern to Brown, a master of cracking offensives of all ilk, was Air Force’s triple-option offense. It’s run by few college football programs these days and harkens back to a time the game was played decades earlier, when college football was still a run first, run second, pass when you absolutely had to, game.
To help put things in perspective, Air Force, which enters Saturday’s game against Michigan with a 1-0 record (noon, BTN), used 16 different ball carriers to rush for 457 yards in its season-opening win, 62-0, over VMI.
“I’ve played with it sometimes in NCAA Football (the video game),” said senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. “So I have a little familiarity with it.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it and a lot of people that you have to account for in the option game. It’s really tough for any defense to sort of switch what you’re trying to do on defense to play this one week.”
Air Force, and anyone else who runs the triple-option offense, relies on multiple ball carriers to be prepared to run the football at any time. Hence, the “option” name.”
Think traditional running back, fullback, two-tight end set nearly every play.Their quarterback, Arion Worthman, will get carries. Their receivers will get carries. Their No. 1 back, if you want to call Tim McVey that, led the team in receiving against VMI, catching three passes for 77 yards.
“Lot of deceiving plays,” Michigan safety Josh Metellus said. “People go one way, then the ball will go the completely other way.”
Michigan’s had its share of difficulty with the triple-option, too. Maybe you recall, but it was Air Force in 2012 that nearly rushed its way to an upset at Michigan Stadium, amassing 290 yards on the ground in a 31-25 loss. Michigan led most of the game, but the Falcons pulled within a field goal midway through the fourth quarter, then never scored again.
It’s that type of scare that had Brown stressing five months ago. He made sure to reiterate the concepts to his defense again in preseason camp, before the real work began on Monday.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things we’re going to have to focus on, is not trying to do too much,” Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said. “You just have to be disciplined. You have to trust the scheme, trust your teammates, play within the scheme and do your job.”
Through two games, Michigan’s defense has lived up to its billing. The unit has scored more points than it has given up and ranks third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense, giving up an average of 39.5 yards per game.
But that defensive line, led by Hurst and sophomore All-American candidate Rashan Gary, will be tested on Saturday by the likes of which no one on this team has ever come across before. No, literally.
When asked earlier in the week, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t recall the last time he played against a triple-option offense. Neither could Zordich. They assuredly had, but it was so long ago.
The response was largely the same from players, who answered the question with blank stares, followed by a chorus of “never.” Metellus was the only one that had, recalling a game from his high-school playing downs in south Florida. The biggest key?
“Just not falling asleep,” Metellus said. “Focus on the run. Keep focusing on the run. When they hit us with a play-action, we’ve just got to stay on our toes.”