Way back in July of 2015, it was revealed that the University of Michigan had a deal in place to play the Army Black Knights during the 2019 football season.
On Saturday, that bill came due, and Michigan had just enough on hand to cover it.
The Wolverines came away with a hard-fought and completely draining 24-21 win in double overtime, and Army came away with a cool $1.5 million.
But it should have never gotten to that.
I’m not saying it should have never gotten to double overtime, I’m saying the game should have never gotten to a kickoff.
I don’t know if interim AD Jim Hackett snuck this in while he was temporarily in office, or if this was Dave Brandon’s last “F-U” to the football program before he quit. Either way, let this be a lesson to athletic directors everywhere — stop scheduling triple-option teams. It does nothing for you and can only hurt you.
At least when this game was scheduled, Michigan was planning to play the least successful of the four major FBS triple-option teams, but little could they have known that by 2019 they would be playing the best of the lot.
This, of course, is even more reason to avoid the situation entirely. The only positive it provides is that it requires your defense to be assignment-sound, which they could also do against literally any other opponent in the world.
Playing a triple-option team forces a defense to change everything they’re doing for at least a week and essentially cram for a midterm in a class that has nothing to do with their major.
It’s a pointless exercise in tedium and knee protection that can derail your entire season.
Preparing to face the triple-option is a lot like algebra — you need to know it at the time, but you’re never going to use it again.
At least now the Wolverines have a week off to get back to what they do on defense.
And the offense has another week to practice recovering fumbles.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan ran the ball 45 times for a disappointing 108 yards against Army, which is the Wolverines’ lowest total since the bowl game against Florida.
So yeah, it wasn’t that long ago.
For a comparison, Army gave up 181 yards rushing to Rice in the season opener in just 30 attempts. Yes, Rice had a 54-yard run in that game, but I’m not sure that helps the Wolverines’ argument here.
But it’s okay because the passing game was bad too.
Quarterback Shea Patterson completed 19-of-29 passes for 207 yards while getting sacked four times and completing a long pass of just 25 yards. He also fumbled twice, which gives him four on the season.
While the defense has excuses for any struggles they may have had against Army, the offense’s only excuse is that Army’s defense played harder, cleaner, and better than they did. The first two you can kind of get because of Army’s line of work, but the third should have been where Michigan’s talent made life more comfortable in the second half.
Instead, it was just there sitting in idle.
This wasn’t speed in space, it was speed in place.
It never went anywhere.
The one thing a Power 5 team like Michigan should be able to do is gain an advantage over a military academy with speed and talent. Use the wide receivers downfield. Use them out wide. Use the speed. Use the space.
But that would have also required Michigan to pick up an Army blitz, which was too much to ask on most plays.
The Wolverines were led in the passing game by slot receiver Ronnie Bell, who was matched up against nickels and safeties. He caught seven passes for 81 yards. They were able to utilize more of his inside routes and mismatches than they attempted with outside receivers Tarik Black and Nico Collins, who combined for a disappointing four catches for 54 yards.
Michigan didn’t throw the deep ball nearly enough in this one. And for as much attention as Army was giving UM’s running game, there had to be some opportunities downfield.
Heck, the throws don’t even necessarily need to be downfield. Black and Collins should be able to put that fear into cornerbacks, which would allow for easy stop routes or comebacks or back-shoulder routes.
I don’t know if Shea Patterson didn’t want to throw into coverage (that’s never stopped him before) or if he just didn’t feel like he had time to uncork one, but he was pretty conservative on the day. I wonder if his fumbles are making him become more conservative as a passer because he can’t keep turning it over at this rate.
The one deep ball that I remember was overthrown by a good six feet as Bell had beaten his guy by five yards. When you get somebody that wide open, that should be a flashing neon sign to try it a few more times.
I was trying to keep up with Michigan’s performance while I was in the Ohio State press box, and upon hearing that Patterson had lost a second fumble, I began to wonder if it was time to turn to Dylan McCaffrey full time.
The answer to that was no because McCaffrey played a lot less than he did last week and threw just one pass when Michigan wanted Army to think he was coming in to run the ball.
Getting back to the running game, without much help from a running mate, a quarterback, or an offensive line, Charbonnet carried the ball 33 times for 100 yards, scoring three times. Michigan’s longest rush on the day was 12 yards.
Charbonnet rarely had anywhere to go thanks to an offensive line that struggled handling Army’s quickness. This isn’t unusual for the Black Knights, who held six opponents under 100 yards rushing last year (though none of them were Power 5 teams.)
The Wolverines were still without starting left tackle Jon Runyan and it was quite a bit more noticeable this time around.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Michigan held Army to 200 yards rushing on 61 attempts. It’s not often you can say a team “held” an opponent to 200 yards rushing, but it’s fitting for the triple-option teams.
Army has only been held under 200 yards rushing three times since 2016. Duke is somehow responsible for two of them and Air Force — a team that sees the triple option every day — is fittingly responsible for the third.
Because of Army’s style of offense, it’s pretty pointless to try and apply this game to any future matchups down the road this season.
For instance, Michigan tried to have as much defensive speed on the field as they could in order to handle the pitch men. They basically played a 3-4 defense and there is really no need for Wisconsin — who hosts Michigan in two weeks — to even watch this tape.
In terms of the game itself, there were some things that happened.
Safety Josh Metellus was robbed of a fumble return for a touchdown. He was whistled down at the Army 25-yard line even though his knee was clearly off the turf when he picked up a fumble and began running for the end zone.
Then, to make matters worse, on Michigan’s next play from scrimmage after the fumble recovery, Patterson was sacked and lost a fumble.
Michigan gave up a 31-yard rush to pitch man Kell Walker, which was the longest gain on the ground by either team. There is no shame in having this happen since it can literally happen on about 80% of snaps by a triple-option team.
Four Wolverines recorded double-digit tackles. Viper Khaleke Hudson led the team with 12 tackles, but was credited with just one solo tackle. Linebacker Jordan Glasgow totaled 11 tackles with just two solos. Safety Brad Hawkins and defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson both put up 10 tackles.
Hutchinson also added 1.5 tackles for loss and the game-winning forced fumble on quarterback Kelvin Hopkins in the second overtime when a touchdown would have won the game for Army.
The Black Knights averaged 3.3 yards per carry, which was their lowest mark since they averaged 3.1 yards per carry against Navy in 2015. So while there’s not much use applying anything from this defensive performance to future opponents, it does carry weight that this Michigan defense did something to Army that nobody has done since 2015.
And really, it might mean even more than that because Army was 2-10 in 2015 and they were held under 3.3 yards per carry three times that year. While this Army team hasn’t looked all that great in 2019, this is a program that has won 29 games the last three years, so Michigan’s defense doing what they did is not insignificant.
The Special Teams
Michigan only punted once and they scored 14 points in regulation, which gives you an idea of how poorly played this game was for the Wolverine offense.
That punt, however, went 61 yards for Will Hart, so at least he made his limited opportunities count.
Kicker Jake Moody hit a 43-yard field goal in the second overtime. Quinn Nordin missed a 55 yarder at the end of the first half.
I continue to be impressed with freshman Giles Jackson on kickoff returns. He had three in this one for 70 yards with a long of 30.
Michigan also faked a punt that I believe was an audible due to Army not covering freshman safety Daxton Hill, who was the gunner. The up-back took the snap and threw it out to Hill who made a nice move and picked up 25 yards. The drive eventually ended in a touchdown and wasn’t the only mistake that Army made that allowed Michigan to keep a drive alive or find new life.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan was a 50-yard Army field goal at the end of regulation away from a disastrous and devastating loss.
But Oklahoma was in a similar situation last year.
In 2009, Ohio State needed to intercept a 2-point conversion attempt late in the game by Navy and return it 100 yards for two points in order to win by four.
Hell, Notre Dame built an entire industry on beating the Service Academies by smaller scores than they should have.
It’s fine. It happens. Moving on is usually pretty easy because everything from this past week will get thrown out. Michigan hits the shores of Madison, Wisconsin in two weeks and somebody’s Big Ten title hopes are going to take a significant hit.
It also means that the Michigan offense is still a work in progress, which might be a problem.
Why is it that the longer a quarterback plays under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan the worse that quarterback gets?
The Shea Patterson we are seeing now has shades of John O’Korn, and I don’t get it.
I’m afraid by the time Dylan McCaffrey is a senior, he’s just going to be a rigid mass of tissue and confusion.
Jake Rudock knew what the hell he was doing by only playing for Harbaugh for one year.
Michigan was very fortunate to get out of this game with a win, which is something that almost every championship team says at least once in a season.
If they don’t kick it up a few notches against Wisconsin in two weeks, however, this win won’t be one of those games that championship teams are remembered for. It will be one of those games where people first realized there was a very real problem.
The Road to The Game
Aug. 31 — Michigan 40 – Middle Tennessee 21 (1-0)
Sept. 7 — Michigan 24 – Army 21 (2-0)
Sept. 21 — at Wisconsin
Sept. 28 —Rutgers
Oct. 5 — Iowa
Oct. 12 — at Illinois
Oct. 19 — at Penn State
Oct. 26 — Notre Dame
Nov. 2 — at Maryland
Nov. 16 — Michigan State
Nov. 23 — at Indiana
Nov. 30 — Ohio State