By that standard, Michigan got ever-so-slightly better last Saturday by defeating Air Force 31-25 in the home opener to go to 1-1 on the year. However, at this very moment, foreheads inside the Michigan coaching offices are buried deep in film and personnel evaluations. Eyebrows are furrowed and expressions are hardened – not inviting a smile into the room.
Despite the win, there are substantial areas of concerns for Hoke and his staff and precious little time to get them corrected, or at least, understood. It was a reminder to all that “winning ugly” is not a standard acceptable to most coaches. They like the “wining” part but not the “ugly.” And too many factors last Saturday made it as ugly as the late Phyllis Diller after her umpteenth face lift.
The three most pressing areas of concern are lack of timely defensive early in the game, failure to establish a running game and inability to produce turnovers. Until these challenges are met in practice, and then seen on the field at game time, Michigan will not be able to repeat its 2011 success.
To say Air Force was a difficult opponent to play was an obvious understatement. Like all military academy schools, the Falcons refused to quit; Denard Robinson’s long-distance touchdown runs only served to permit more time of possession to favor AF.
It’s also no accident that all three schools (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force) run the same triple-option offense. With the top talent unavailable to those coaches, and size requirements in place for their lives as actual servicemen, quickness is substituted for size and bulk.
Falcon running back Cody Getz stood all of 5-7, 170 pounds, but he was as tough a runner to handle as any Michigan has seen in recent years. He ran around, past (but seldom OVER) a much slower-looking defensive line (especially senior Will Campbell, who appeared to be positively statue-like at the nose position).
Playing at a much faster tempo than ANY Big Ten rival, Air Force kept substitutions from being made and adjustments delayed from the U-M sidelines. It was a well-executed game plan that would have beaten most teams not possessing a quarterback named Robinson.
By the way, there are times when statistics fail to capture the true essence of the game. Time of possession can be one of those “facts:” if the opposition takes little time to produce points, it matters little where the balance of possession lies.
In this game, other stats painted the true picture – third-down conversions, yards per carry rushing (for Air Force) and turnovers; none of which favored the Wolverines.
AF was 12 for 21 on third downs (just 5 for 11 for U-M) and 2 for 5 on fourth downs. Despite Robinson’s two long dashes to paydirt (79 and 58 yards), and 218 yards rushing overall, AF was just five yards shy of the U-M team rushing total on an amazing 71 attempts. If you told the Michigan staff that its defense would allow NINETY plays from scrimmage, they’d be calling for the padded wagons on you!
To overcome AF’s offense, coordinator Greg Mattison had to jumble his on-field lineup as if he were rolling Yahtzee dice from a cup. From play-to-play, no one really knew who was where and what position was being occupied by a starter or a third-stringer. Yet, somehow it worked out in the end.
In the fourth quarter, after nary a key stop having been made all afternoon, the Wolverines finally produced the crucial defensive sequence to win the game (while millions of television viewers were cursing their flat screens when the game transmission disappeared for several minutes; echoes of “Heidi” could be heard – actually it was ESPN’s Wendy Nix).
Part of the defense’s problem stems from the other side of the ball. At the moment, Michigan doesn’t have a real running game of its own; Robinson cannot be expected to average 200 yards each game. Until the Wolverines begin running successfully between the tackles, opposition defenses will simply load their schemes to negate Robinson’s ability to escape tackles (Alabama did, as have other squads).
Look at the simple numbers (arithmetic, as noted by a certain former president last week). Aside from the UM quarterback, Michigan has tried three running backs (Fitzgerald Toussaint, Vincent Shaw, Thomas Rawls) and gotten just 55 yards on 27 carries, a smidge over 2 yards per attempt. Subtract a 22-yard gainer by Shaw late against Alabama (when the outcome was long decided) and the percentage is worse.
The Wolverine defense is, of course, making matters more starchy by its inability, over the first two games, to produce turnovers – stopping potential scoring drives and giving its offense more chances in better field position. The ONLY turnover for U-M in the first two games was a fumble recovery on the very last play of the first half versus Alabama (which might as well have not counted at all).
On the flipside, Michigan has thrown four interceptions (although, in truth, only one can be classified as an actual poor executed pass by Robinson). Still, they ALL seem to come at the worst possible opportunity – just when the U-M offense has been getting a flash of momentum and pace.
Still … despite a pretty shoddy overall performance, the Wolverines won the game – which is FAR better than losing (okay, that’s obvious). Robinson was, at times, brilliant, and only made U-M fans wonder aloud where this version of the senior signal-caller was in Texas the week before.
And there was a revelation on Saturday (not named Robinson)! It seems as if Michigan has actually found a legitimate tight end target with size, hands, some speed and power. On the depth chart for the Air Force game, true freshman Devin Funchess was listed as FOURTH-string! But four receptions later for a game-high 106 yards (including a 30-yard touchdown reception), his stock shot up the chart as if there was an Apple symbol next to it.
A native of Farmington Hills, and coming from Harrison High School (my old stomping grounds, except neither the Hills nor Harrison even existed when I graduated from North Farmington HS back in … 1970 … #%*&!!), Funchess was probably penciled in as a star of the “future.”
Well, the future is now, and we old-timers could envision a player just like former All-American tight end Paul Seal from the 1974 season. Paul (a former debate partner of mine from Speech 301 class) was a favorite target for Bo Schembechler’s play calling because of his height (6-4) and size (220) and excellent hands. Seal always seemed to draw shorter defenders and when Dennis Franklin needed a key first down, Seal was the man!
Funchess stands 6-5, 225, and didn’t appear to be afraid to play “jump ball” or navigate through traffic to catch passes. Aside from Robinson, 416 yards in total offense, Funchess was the game’s true star because his plays came at crucial points in the action.
Now if only the Michigan wideouts (not named Devin Gardner) could become more involved, it would go a long way to solving a few (not all) of the problems.
On a sidenote: It would be nice if the Big Ten members would try a tad harder NOT to justify all the nationwide criticism of it being a mediocre conference, Saturday’s performance, as a whole, was 6-6, including three clunker/stunners – Wisconsin going belly-up at Oregon State, Nebraska folding at UCLA and Iowa’s no-show against Iowa State. All three losses were against teams considered cellar-dwellers of their respective conference.
In fact, there wasn’t an impressive victory from any Big Ten school; no one is going to tout convincingly that New Hampshire or Central Michigan (or Central Florida) is a “quality” opponent. In fact, Air Force might have been the toughest of the entire lot.
Finally, you must have an ounce of sympathy for the plight of poor Penn State, which for the second week in a row, coughed up a late lead to fall to 0-2 (losing 17-16 at Virginia). Despite all the negative things that descended upon the team, campus and student body, one might have thought pride would have compensated for the escaped talent.
Alas, it was not true, is not true and will continue not to be true. The Nittany Lions host navy this Saturday and play Temple before getting into the Big Ten schedule. An honest observer can clearly see a possible 2-10 or 3-9 outcome for this season and the next 2-3 years.
All, basically, for the lack of a phone call…
Last but not least: The U-M athletic department allowed another “Legacy” number to be re-introduced back into the public eye – this game, it was Bennie Oosterbaan’s “47,” now to be worn by defensive end Jake Ryan (a sophomore) for the remainder of his career.
My only quibble is the position being changed from when Oosterbaan played as perhaps the best overall athlete in U-M history. He was a receiver, part of the famed Benny-to-Bennie combination, with Hall of Fame quarterback Benny Friedman. It would have been nice, and more appropriate to have seen an offensive player be allowed to continue that legacy.
In the coming weeks, other retired numbers (Ron Kramer’s 88, Tom Harmon’s 98 and the 11 worn by all three Wistert brothers) will be similarly honored through a passing of the numerical torch. I doubt the alignment will be proper to the past, but one can only hope.