Ohio State and Michigan both hosted service academies this past weekend, which gave us an interesting look at how the Big Ten’s only two megapowers handle the triple option.
The Buckeyes beat Army 38-7 and the Wolverines defeated Air Force 29-13. Ohio State struggled to lead Army by 10 at the half, while the Falcons went into the fourth quarter against Michigan down by just six points.
You sort of have to judge a game against a service academy as its own thing. You can’t really extrapolate too much about a defensive performance against the triple option because it won’t apply to almost anything else they will see this year. And being unlike anything a team faces any other week, there are always going to be struggles.
Offensively, possessions will usually be lower in number because the option teams are trying to slow the game down and burn clock, so a big yardage day doesn’t always happen. That doesn’t mean execution should be lacking, however.
And that’s where the Wolverines had a problem on Saturday. It’s also where they’ve had a problem all season long.
Michigan failed to score a touchdown in any of their four trips into the red zone against Air Force, and they now have a streak of eight-consecutive failed trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Kicker Quinn Nordin is getting some tremendous work, however, and he currently leads the Big Ten in scoring at 14 points per game.
In case you were wondering, a kicker averaging 14 points per game either means your offense is scoring 70 points per game, or it’s just not getting into the end zone.
For Michigan, it is the latter…at least until Rutgers comes to town.
How bad are things right now? The Wolverines have scored nine touchdowns this season, and four of them belong to the defense and special teams.
Things will get better because that’s the only mathematical possibility remaining, but a broken foot for freshman receiver Tarik Black will make things tougher moving forward. He could be out for the season, which is a devastating blow for one of the Big Ten’s top young playmakers.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines put up just 359 yards of total offense, averaging 5.5 yards per play, which was their lowest mark of the season. They rushed for a season-low 190 yards and passed for a season-low 169 yards.
The rushing yards were up and down. Ty Isaac had carries of 32 and 26 yards, while Karan Higdon added in a 36-yard touchdown. Those three carries gave Michigan 94 of their 190 rushing yards. The other 39 attempts netted them just 96 yards.
Just 13 of the Michigan tailbacks’ 34 carries gained more than three yards. For a comparison, 15 of OSU’s 22 tailback carries against Army went for more than three yards, and one of the carries that fell short was a 2-yard touchdown run.
Ty Isaac rushed for 89 yards on 16 carries, but only half of his carries gained more than a yard. He is still seeing the hole well, there just weren’t a lot of holes to see inside. He left the game late due to an injury that reportedly will not keep him from playing at Purdue on Saturday.
Higdon rushed for 64 yards on 12 carries, including the aforementioned 36-yard run, but only three carries went for more than three yards.
Chris Evans had a couple of nice runs, but he also fumbled without much contact occurring, so his season continues to be a struggle.
Michigan had more success kicking the ball outside on runs than pounding up in the middle.
On Saturday, Urban Meyer explained to the assembled media after the Army game that you can’t simply run the ball up the middle every time and expect success if there have been no outside threats. Michigan found one of those outside threats in freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
If him turning the corner here doesn’t remind you of Ted Ginn, then you might want to go watch some old Ted Ginn highlights. (You’ll need to slow them down a smidge, though.)
You want to help Wilton Speight? Do more stuff with DPJ. pic.twitter.com/L9x3uujmEU
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 18, 2017
Quarterback Wilton Speight completed 14-of-23 passes for 169 yards, and that 37-yarder above was the long gain of the day for the Wolverines.
His numbers don’t seem too bad until you consider that he was 13-of-17 passing outside of the red zone and just 1-of-6 passing while in the red zone.
In fact, this season he is 1-of-12 throwing the ball in the red zone. The most amazing thing about that stat? The one completion went for a loss of one yard, which means that each of his incompletions gained more yards than the one pass he actually completed. By the way, that one pass came on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line, which left Michigan with a third-and-goal from the 8-yard line.
That’s when this happened.
Let's check in on Michigan's red zone offense… pic.twitter.com/i7xq5d0RJK
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 18, 2017
Any time I see a play call like this on third-and-eight, I immediately assume an offensive coordinator doesn’t trust his quarterback at that moment. That’s not always the correct assessment, but with how inaccurate Speight has been in the red zone this season, I don’t know how else to take it right now.
And it’s not like he’s just missing guys, he’s not even keeping the passes on the playing field. At one point I saw a child crying in the stands asking his dad “why does the bad man kept hitting the cameramen with footballs?”
I also have “Bizarre choices by Speight” written in my notebook, but this was hours ago and I couldn’t possibly pinpoint exactly the moment that made me write this down.
Speight has also fumbled three times inside the 30-yard line and been sacked twice. While only one of those fumbles and sacks have occurred in the red zone, it would appear that no place inside the opponent’s 30-yard line is safe for the Wolverines.
If there are red-zone yips, then Wilton Speight has them.
I don’t know how they are going to fix the issue, but they’ll have to do it without Jabrill Peppers at wildcat, which should force them to actually address the issue. Maybe the fix is backup quarterback John O’Korn. He’s mobile and gives Michigan a run-pass option. Ohio State did something similar with Cardale Jones giving way to J.T. Barrett in 2015.
Or maybe the fix is simply time. Michigan needs Speight to hurry up, though.
In terms of the offensive line, as I mentioned, they struggled to open holes inside, but they did a nice job on sealing the edge on the long runs. Right tackle Nolan Ulizio had some rough moments again this week. He’s usually good for a couple of those per game.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Michigan did a great job of limiting Air Force on the ground. The Falcons rushed for 168 yards on 49 carries (3.4 ypc), but 61 of those yards came on just two carries. There were some yards to be gained outside, but Michigan did just fine.
Air Force completed 1-of-9 passes for 64 yards. That 64-yarder went for a touchdown on a play-action that got by safety Tyree Kinnel. That’s what triple-option teams do, though, so it doesn’t really mean anything to me moving forward. When Kinnel starts getting beaten deep against a normal offense or starts biting on play actions, then I’ll listen.
As I said above, it’s hard to take too much from this game, other than Michigan’s defense did what they needed to do and they certainly weren’t “run on” by a team that rushed for 473 yards two weeks ago against VMI.
I am continually impressed by linebacker Noah Furbush, though. Michigan goes four linebackers deep and they’re all solid.
Defensive end Chase Winovich disrupted a number of plays, as he tends to do.
Based on what I saw from this game, the Buckeyes might be able to get some option plays freed up to the outside. Run the speed option to the short side of the field at your own peril, however.
I wish there was more to say, but there’s really no point. Sorry.
The Special Teams
Donovan Peoples-Jones returned two punts for 104 yards, scoring from 79 yards out on one of them. This should surprise nobody. It was his first of the year, but doubtful it will be his last. Hell, it almost wasn’t his last one of the game because Air Force foolishly punted to him again. Both of DPJ’s returns were a case of the punter outkicking his coverage and you saw the results. The lesson here is clear.
Never outkick your coverage against Donovan Peoples-Jones. pic.twitter.com/jwuSEMjEpO
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 18, 2017
Kicker Quinn Nordin connected on all five of his field goal attempts. He is currently tied for the lead in field goals made nationally with 11. It’s probably not a good sign for an offense when a broken foot to Nordin would be more devastating than a broken foot to Tarik Black. Fortunately for Michigan, Nordin remains healthy. At least until they have to shut him down due to the most acute case of Kicker’s Knee that Dr. James Andrews has ever seen.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan’s defense left the field against a cut-blocking team and they didn’t lose any linemen to knee injuries, and for that, Wolverine fans should be ecstatic.
It also means that non-conference play is over and the Big Ten schedule is now upon us.
Michigan goes on the road to Purdue this weekend in a game that looked like an easy win before the season began, but now there are questions.
The Wolverine offense needs to pick things up and the defense needs to remove themselves from triple-option mode. This is a new animal.
I tend to think Michigan plays their best game in this one, even with Tarik Black out. Sophomore Kekoa Crawford needs to step up and become a reliable and consistent receiver for that to happen, however. And Donovan Peoples-Jones needs to become a large part of this offense.
This is the second week in a row that Peoples-Jones has had a play of at least 44 yards. With Michigan’s dedication to running the ball, DPJ can be a danger all over the field. He can take a slant the distance, or a jet sweep. Heck, he can probably even run a route past the first-down marker if you let him. It’s time. He can handle it.
Picture Steve Breaston, but designed in a lab by scientists who grew up creating players in video games. That’s Donovan Peoples-Jones.
It also apparently means that the red zone is lava.
Maybe if somebody is about to get tackled at the 15-yard line or so, have them retreat back outside the 20. Treat it like a step-back three. Take a page out of John Beilein’s playbook.
I don’t know how Michigan is going to fix their issues in the red zone, but I do know that if they don‘t get them fixed, they will lose a game that they shouldn’t.
Even if it’s not until the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor.
The Road to The Game
Sept. 2 Michigan 33 – Florida 17
Sept. 9 Michigan 36 – Cincinnati 14
Sept. 16 Michigan 29 – Air Force 13
Sept. 23 Michigan at Purdue
Sept. 30 BYE
Oct. 7 Michigan State at Michigan
Oct. 14 Michigan at Indiana
Oct. 21 Michigan at Penn State
Oct. 28 Rutgers at Michigan (Rivalry Game)
Nov. 4 Minnesota at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Maryland
Nov. 18 Michigan at Wisconsin
Nov. 25 Ohio State at Michigan