Thursday, September 3rd • Rice-Eccels Stadium (45,807), Salt Lake City, UT
Winds S 15-25 MPH
Utah 26 UM 10
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Reasons to be Concerned
Michigan's only touchdown a year ago came on a fluky Willie Henry INT returned for 5 yards and a score. Outside of that, Michigan scored one field goal, threw 3 INTS, fumbled once and punted 5 times...and one punt (in which Michigan only had 10 men on the field) was returned for a touchdown. Oh, and it stormed for about 2 1/2 hours in the 4th quarter. It was a long day.
There are nothing but unknowns for Michigan's offense going into this season. Who's the starting quarterback? Who's going to emerge as the primary running back/trusted second option? Will offensive line gel more under Drevno than they did under Funk? Who's going to be Michigan's big receiver threat?
Utah returns all of their primary contributors from a year ago...QB Travis Wilson is not the biggest passing threat as he's probably more dangerous on the ground, but he's consistent and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. RB Devontae Booker is a solid runner who gained just over 1,500 yards last year and scored 10 touchdowns despite not playing much against Michigan for whatever reason. And WR Kenneth Scott is Utah's leading receiver coming back. All 3 of those guys are seniors and experienced and will be tough to contain even for Michigan's stout defense.
Unless you've been living under a rock the last 4 years, you know Michigan's track record with road games against successful teams. It's not great. The single biggest reason for concern, at least for me, is whether or not Michigan can learn how win on the road. Utah's Rice-Eccels Stadium is one of the smallest venues on Michigan's schedule, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in noise. Utah's fans show up and get loud, it will be a true road test, no question about it.
Reasons to be Confident
Not to be over-confident or anything, but Michigan's defense should be pretty great, especially up front and in the backfield. They bring back a lot of starters, 9 if I'm doing my math right, and they add some nice depth in some key positions. The secondary has a chance to be maybe one of the best in the country. The D-line, even with the loss of Bryan Mone in fall camp, is still very experienced and talented across the 2-deep. And the LB corps is maybe the most experienced its been in years with Bolden, Ross and Morgan.
But much like last year, if Michigan's defense has any shot at being great, it must be able to rely on the offense to do their part. Last year Michigan beat themselves with turnovers and bad special teams, often putting the defense in less than desirable positions. Both turnover margin and special teams should be measurably better this year – because frankly, they can't get any worse.
If there's one thing Michigan can hang their hat on is that Jake Rudock has plenty of honest-to-goodness game experience and fashions himself as a pretty good ball protector. He doesn't make bad decisions very often and he's pretty good at giving his receivers a shot. If Michigan's line can make the sort of gains everyone is expecting, that could free up Rudock (or Morris, let's be compliant here) to see the field accurately and give the backs enough room to make things happen. Erick boldly predicted Michigan could have two 1,000-yard rushers this season. That will only happen if Michigan's OL is ready to take that next step as a unit. There's been some shuffling of the personnel up front, but all 5 guys have starting experience. Tim Drevno brings a legacy of success as a O coordinator and OL coach to a Michigan offense that desperately needed it.
Much of fall camp, folks have been speculating about the emergence of a standout WR. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson were sort of known commodities in the previous Michigan offense, and it's reasonable to expect a bump in production with the new scheme. But what about the untested guys...guys like Drake Harris, Moe Ways and Freddy Canteen. All of them showed up on the 2-deep released on Monday. Harris could be primed for a breakout year and from the sounds of it, so could Canteen...maybe on both sides of the ball?
Speaking of 2-way players...Jabrill Peppers. We know he's going to be all over the defensive backfield. Corner, safety, nickel-package. But his talents could also be utilized on the offensive side as well. Slot, wideout, decoy...you name it. Its all on the table for Peppers, including kick/punt returner where he may have his best chance to add to his highlight reel.
And of course the primary reason to be confident...Jim Harbaugh. The man is a maniacal football guru. Throughout his career, he finds ways to create success where there had once been very little. He turns around players and teams with stunning consistency. Captain Comeback. If anyone is going to be successful coaching Michigan, it's going to be Jim Harbaugh. No. Doubt. About. It.
If Michigan loses...
Then what I predicted came to fruition. The season is far from a bust if Michigan starts out 0-1. I fully expect this to be a close game. And should it come down to the 4th quarter and Michigan is still in this thing, then you can use that as proof that things are on a better trajectory than they were last year. Sometimes its all about how you lose. Did you battle valiantly or turn the ball over 4 times and let beat yourself? A loss doesn't really kill any hope of a successful year. Going out to Salt Lake City for a season opener is not easy. Win or lose, Michigan will grow from this experience.
If Michigan wins...
If Michigan wins, then the season has the potential...the potential...to be great. I don't want to put the cart before the horse here, but a season opening win at Utah sets up a reasonable possibility of a 6-0 start to the season. This program is in dire need of a confidence boost on the field. A win also vindicates the Harbaugh hype, and in the minds of these 18-23 year-olds, that's huge. A loss can bread more losses, as we all know, but a win can have the same effect.
• Jake Rudock is the starting QB, DeVeon Smith is your primary RB.
• Michigan's defense is the real deal. Utah has earn every inch.
• Michigan doesn't kill themselves with turnovers, but penalties are an issue.
• Jake Butt is Michigan's leading pass catcher, FB Joe Kerridge gets a lot of touches.
• Utah 17 Michigan 14