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Air Force's defensive style could provide effective counter to Michigan's balanced attack

The Falcons enter the field Sept. 2, 2017 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Air Force defeated Virginia Military Institute, 62-0.

JULIUS DELOS REYES/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 13, 2017

Creating a scouting report for No. 7 Michigan has been a lengthy process for Air Force’s defensive coaches.

The Wolverines go six deep at tight end, play three fullbacks, three tailbacks and have a stable of touted receivers. Their offense last year ranked 58th in the nation, with a near-perfect split between rushing (212.9 yards per game) and passing (212 ypg).

“I don’t know if there’s anybody in college football over the past 2 ½ years who you can see truly does a better job of being quite balanced,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said of Jim Harbaugh’s squad. “Being able to run between the tackles, and also being extremely effective on the perimeter, too, with fly sweeps, toss sweeps in addition to being in good plays and being able to get the ball downfield in their passing game. They’re superb on offense. You look up front, I just don’t think in the history of the Air Force Academy we’ve played a team that’s had this many 4- and 5-star recruits.”

Yes, Michigan is talented and big and versatile. But as for the balance, that may not be as horrible as it would seem for the Falcons.

To oversimplify this a bit, under defensive coordinator Steve Russ the Falcons have created an identity as a risk-taking defense that stops the run (ranking 10th in the nation last year despite playing three of the top four rushing teams) and tries to disrupt the passing game with blitzes. It often leaves itself exposed to big plays through the air but takes that calculated risk with the understanding that deep throws by their very nature are completed at low percentages.

“Football, defensively for me, will always start with stopping the run,” said Russ, who is beginning his fourth season as the sole defensive coordinator. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need to play really good pass defense, but when anybody can run it and throw it on you, you have no chance.”

With Russ guiding the defense, it has been the teams that are excellent in one area that have created the most issues. And the numbers reveal it.

In 41 games in the Russ era, Air Force has lost nine times when giving up 30 or more points.

One of those can be thrown out. In 2016, Wyoming helped itself with a defensive touchdown and twice capitalized on short fields to mount scoring drives that went 43 and 37 yards. Tough to pin much blame on the defense in that game, and Air Force still had a chance to tie with a 2-point conversion deep in the fourth quarter.

On four occasions the Falcons fell victim to passing attacks that completed 71 percent or better of their attempts. Two came against future NFL quarterbacks, at Michigan State (Connor Cook, a fourth-round pick) and in a bowl game against California (No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff). The other two quarterbacks were Darell Garretson, who completed 63 percent of his passes for two years at Utah State before transferring to Oregon State, and Colorado State’s prolific thrower Nick Stevens.

Three others came against option offenses – twice vs. New Mexico, once at Navy – that averaged 340 yards on the ground.

That leaves only a 2014 loss to San Diego State, which rushed for 186 yards and passed for 326, as an example of a truly balanced attack proving fatal. And even that one was aided by an Aztecs defensive touchdown in a 30-14 victory in 2014.

Air Force is 29-3 in all other games during that span.

Granted, the Falcons largely have new personnel on defense this year, so past results take on a little less significance. But the pattern has been established that, to overcome the Falcons with a Russ-coached defense, a team needs to be elite in an area.

It remains to be seen if Michigan – while doing everything at a high level – can fit that criteria.

If Air Force’s scheme can find a way to neutralize the running game and the short passing routes, it isn’t clear that quarterback Wilton Speight (a career 58.8 percent passer without a completion of more than 56 yards) can complete enough throws over the top of the defense to make it pay.

“They do a lot of things on offense that make you defend a lot of different aspects of the game,” Russ said. “We’re going to have to be on our toes.”

Another variable to consider, obviously, is Michigan's extreme level of talent and depth. But the most comparable opponent for Air Force under Russ was Michigan State in 2015, and the Spartans averaged just 1.8 yards per carry in a 35-21 victory that would have been vastly different had Cook's throws not been on the mark and Aaron Burbridge (also a future NFL player who dominated that day with eight catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns) not been so difficult to defend.

Air Force’s defenders, while primarily concerned with their individual assignments, understand how what they do fits into the defensive plan. And they know that strategy will give them a chance in a game the Falcons will enter Saturday as 26-point underdogs.

“We all try our best to see the big picture,” defensive end Santo Coppola said. “We want to all embrace our identity on defense of being some dogs and going to the ball and trying our best to stop everything that comes our way.

“We’ve been watching a lot of film on them. We see how good they can be, how good they are and the things they’re able to do. What gives me comfort is knowing the things we’re going to be able to do as a unit with everybody on the same page. As long as we stick together and do the right thing, I think we’re going to put ourselves in position to make big plays.”

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©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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