Column: Michigan's defense searching for answers after narrowly averting disaster
But it's in the books, and that's a start.
The No. 19 Wolverines were befuddled by Air Force's triple-option offense for most of Saturday's game and allowed 417 total yards, but held off the Falcons for a 31-25 victory in their home opener at Michigan Stadium.
"It was great to win the football game, I can tell ya that," coach Brady Hoke said. "It's always good to win. Sometimes, they're not very pretty -- this would be one."
The Wolverines move to 1-1 on the season, after their humbling loss against Alabama in the opener. But moving into their Week 3 game against Massachusetts, the question remains: Just how good is this team?
Michigan was spanked against Alabama, then eked past a Mountain West Conference team. Air Force rushed for 290 yards, and four of its six second-half drives lasted at least 10 plays. It finished with six for the game.
It moved the ball almost at will against Michigan, which finished 17th in the country last year in total defense.
Hoke talked about getting stops -- especially third-down stops -- coming into this game to get the ball out of the hands of Air Force's grind-it-out offense. Instead, Michigan finished with a 10-minute disadvantage in time of possession.
The Falcons were 12-of-21 on third-down conversions, including converting 9-of-15 in the first three quarters. Time and again, Air Force fooled Michigan defenders with misdirection and finesse.
Time to fret, eh?
Air Force's triple-option offense hasn't been seen around these parts in years, and won't return any time soon. That means it was hard to prepare for, but also means the breakdowns that came against it won't mean much either.
"I think we had some missed tackles -- don't get me wrong," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "I think we could have been more fundamentally sound, but it was a game where we really had to feel the offense out."
Michigan clamped down when it had to in the fourth quarter by stripping down its defensive game plan. It also inserted true freshman linebacker Joe Bolden for fifth-year senior Kenny Demens down the stretch.
Bolden saw the option every day at Colerain High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, because it was his own team's offense. Coaches figured that pedigree could help a defense that was struggling, and the move paid off.
Michigan's success rate against the option picked up. Bolden finished with 10 tackles, second on the team.
Those adjustments show growth.
"We made our adjustments and, at the end of the day, we made enough plays," Kovacs said. "We changed up our defense completely. We scrapped one defense and put in a new defense and tried giving them different looks, because we weren't doing that at the beginning of the game and they took advantage of it."
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison won't be happy this week, especially with all the breakdowns that allowed Air Force rushers to find the edge. But in a lot of ways, this defense isn't so different from last year's unit.
Michigan struggled early against Western Michigan and especially Notre Dame, and wasn't exactly pretty against Eastern Michigan. But it improved.
It shut down San Diego State the following week, then shut out Minnesota the one after that, and the Wolverines were in business.
The key to that success was simply getting better every week, especially on the defensive line, and Hoke sees the same thing happening this year.
"I would say there's a uniqueness to the offense, and the schemes -- but at the same time, we're a work in progress," Hoke said. "Quinton Washington is getting better every time he plays. Ondre Pipkins is getting better every time he plays. Keith Heitzman ... Mario Ojemudia ... Frank Clark, having him back.
"We're a work in progress."
Michigan has no reason to puff out its chest. It is a superior team to Air Force, and let the Falcons hang around. But the Wolverines won't face a team like that again.
They're playing young guys all over the field, too, and they won't play so young come October.
It's too early to say this team can compete for a Big Ten championship, but too early to say it can't either, no matter how unsightly this one might have been.
It's a work in progress.