By: Will Burchfield
Michigan’s mounting struggles in the red zone came to a head midway through the third quarter on Saturday when Ty Isaac was smothered for a loss on third and goal from the eight-yard line and quarterback Wilton Speight threw up his arm in exasperation.
“I probably should keep that in check a little bit,” Speight said. “Obviously the frustration built up a little bit. But it was one of those things, like, ‘Ah, they fooled us.'”
Isaac was gang-tackled for a three-yard loss and Michigan settled for another unsatisfying field goal. The Wolverines failed to score a touchdown in four red-zone trips in Saturday’s 29-13 win over Air Force and have punched it in just once in ten opportunities this season.
“We thought we had the look that we wanted,” Speight said. “The outside linebackers had depth, it was a two-high safety look. And I guess as soon as I went down to kind of focus in on the snap, they brought the house. I went to the sideline and Coach Harbaugh’s like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t even see that coming. That was really well-disguised.’
“That’s just one of those things where they got us and you move on. The bottom line is it’s another win and the Wolverines are 3-0.”
That they are, but not in the most impressive fashion. Their defense and special teams has scored nearly as many touchdowns as their offense and Speight hasn’t looked anything like the quarterback he was prior to his injury last November.
The inefficiency in the red-zone is a serious concern, especially with Big 10 play looming. In four red-zone trips versus Air Force, Michigan ran 12 plays for minus-one yard. Speight said the Falcons’ defense was gaining the upper hand through deception.
“They were doing a really good job of disguising coverages, disguising blitzes. Often times 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,” said Speight, who spent much of his time on the sideline talking on the phone with passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Even still, Michigan was unable to make the right adjustments.
Jim Harbaugh agreed that Air Force got the best of Michigan in the play-calling department in the red zone. Harbaugh has the final say on all of the calls, which come from offensive coordinator Tim Drevo.
“They definitely called the better play on some of our red-zone throws and runs. We were in a (run-pass option) and they had disguised it well and really did a good job. Well done on their part,” said Harbaugh. “They had a better call than we had most of the time there down in the red zone.”
Outside the red zone, Michigan ran 53 plays for 360 yards. While the offense hasn’t been terrific through the first three games, most of its problems have been concentrated in a 20-yard swath of the field.
“We were moving the ball, moving the ball, moving the ball up and down the field, then getting into the red zone,” said Speight, halting his train of thought at a fitting time. “Maybe they changed up the looks. Like I said, they were holding blitzes until the last second and then bringing it when it was too late to check out of the play or what have you. That’s something we’ll have to look at the film and just get better at.”
Michigan twice had the ball inside the 10-yard line, but nothing the coaches dialed up had any positive effect. The runs were snuffed out and the throws were well-covered.
The Wolverines’ defense was playing well enough that it may have behooved Harbaugh to take a risk on fourth and goal, but the coach never really entertained the idea.
“I’m playing the percentages, playing having a good call. Fourth-and-eight from the eight, do I ever lose my mind and say, ‘Let’s jam it in?’ Just call the jam-it-in play? I try to keep a steady hand on the tiller,” Harbaugh said. “We’d like to have scored more touchdowns in the red zone, but we’ll keep at it.
“Our team is moving the ball, that’s a fact,” he added. “I think the red zone touchdowns will come.”