ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wilton Speight threw his arms up in the air out in front of his face as another scoring opportunity crumbled at his feet. The usually unflappable Michigan quarterback seemed to be flapping late in the third quarter Saturday while an equally flummoxed home crowd booed the Wolverines offense for the second straight week.
No. 7 Michigan escaped a scare from Air Force 29-13 to stay unbeaten three games into the regular season. The final score belies the fact that the Falcons stayed within striking distance late into the fourth quarter and left the crowd in Ann Arbor concerned for an offense that has lacked creativity, explosive plays and the ability to finish drives. Michigan entered the game dead last among Power 5 schools in the percentage of red-zone trips that ended in touchdowns and was shut out on its four attempts inside the 20 Saturday.
Speight's exasperation showed after a wave of Air Force tacklers swallowed up a handoff to Ty Isaac in the Michigan backfield on a third-down play 8 yards from the end zone. That sent rookie kicker Quinn Nordin trotting from the sideline for the fourth of his record-tying five field goals on the afternoon. Nordin's 10 field goals through three games will probably be the most in college football when the weekend comes to a close. That is not the type of first-place spot that Michigan and an offense that pushed the creative envelope a year ago were hoping to hold as they get set for Big Ten play.
"Obviously, the frustration built up a little bit," Speight said. "But it was one of things where it was like, 'Ah, they fooled us.'"
Speight and coach Jim Harbaugh said Air Force's defense disguised its blitzes well throughout the game, especially in the red zone, to get the better of them on several occasions. Harbaugh said that while of course his team would like to be finishing those drives with touchdowns, he's confident that those will come as they continue to progress.
In the meantime, youth has helped the Wolverines plow ahead. Nordin and the rest of his underclassmen brethren were viewed as a liability this summer, as outsiders wondered how Harbaugh's fresh-faced recruits would handle the pressure of stepping into starring roles. Right now they are carrying the offense through its sluggish start.
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush led the defense with 11 tackles and on two occasions smothered a rare pass attempt before Air Force's Arion Worthman had a chance to look downfield. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones scored one of the team's two touchdowns with his effortless 79-yard weaving run on a punt return in the third quarter. He finished the game with 156 all-purpose yards. Then there was Nordin, who comfortably made all five of his kicks, including a 49-yard attempt to give Michigan a 9-6 lead in the closing seconds of the first half.
Speight's performance came under fire last week and will likely draw a fresh batch of criticism. He completed 14 of his 23 attempts for 169 yards through the air, at times overlooking open targets or missing them when he did spot them.
Responsibility for the inconsistency in getting the ball to the Wolverines' young playmakers, though, should fall as much on the coaching staff. Michigan struggled to find any rhythm in its calls. Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton share those duties. While former coordinator Jedd Fisch was breaking out the 11-man "snake" I-formation at his new gig at UCLA, the Wolverines lacked the type of ingenuity that inspired those types of interesting looks and the Big Ten's most productive offense (40.3 points per game) last fall.
Michigan doesn't need to put up 40 points on most weekends to keep its title hopes alive. The defense remains fierce and entertaining -- holding the Falcons to 232 yards and only one touchdown on a busted coverage. That side of the ball has still made as many trips to the end zone as it has allowed this season.
The Wolverines will need to be more opportunistic, though. Trading field goals for would-be touchdowns is enough to beat smaller teams from smaller conferences. It won't be enough to make it through the upcoming Big Ten slate unscathed.
"We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements. I like where our team is right now," Harbaugh said. "... Our team is moving the ball. That's a fact. I think the red-zone touchdowns will come."
Harbaugh added: "It's good to be Wilton Speight right now," pointing out that the junior was the quarterback of the No. 7 team in the country with an unbeaten record. Speight's frustrations won't boil away, though, until those touchdowns start to come.