Breakdown: Michigan seeks revenge over Utah in Harbaugh's debut
When the rain subsided, the fans returned and play resumed between Michigan and Utah at Michigan Stadium on Sept. 20. But it was only one subset of people who returned to their seats following the delay: those cheering for the Utes.
Inclement weather paused the teams’ contest last season with 7:51 left in the game and Utah ahead 26-10. After a two-hour, 24-minute delay, the Utes fans watched their team finish off a win by the same score.
If it was an odd sight to see mostly red in the stands last year, it won’t be this year. A sellout red-clad crowd is expected for the highly anticipated rematch Thursday in Salt Lake City.
Some areas of the game have swayed in Utah’s direction since last year: The Utes won that game en route to a better finish to the season, returned their quarterback and will be playing at home. But Michigan has one notable change in first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. If Harbaugh can turn things around right away, this year’s game could be different, but the test will be tough.
Here’s how the two teams match up this time around.
Michigan pass offense vs. Utah pass defense
Harbaugh has refused to name a starting quarterback between fifth-year senior Jake Rudock and junior Shane Morris, though he said on the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday that the quarterbacks know who will start. If the team’s practice Aug. 22 is any indication, it will be Rudock, who took all of the first-team reps that night. But Morris has been in the competition the whole way.
Both quarterbacks will provide similar tests for Utah: They’re both pro-style quarterbacks who will seek to throw rather than run. Morris relieved Devin Gardner under center in last year’s game, but he went just 4-for-13 for 42 yards and an interception.
Whether it’s Morris or Rudock, the quarterback will have a host of capable, yet unproven, wide receivers. Seniors Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are likely the top threats, while redshirt freshman Drake Harris and freshman Grant Perry will see time as well. The top receiving threat, though, could be junior tight end Jake Butt.
Utah’s pass defense finished 90th in the country last year, albeit against a bevy of high-octane Pac-12 offenses. The Utes lost two starters in the secondary to the NFL, but they will replace them with two players who suffered season-ending injuries last season. Utah intercepted 12 passes last season — including three against Michigan — and returned three for touchdowns. Its pass rush was its strength, however: The Utes led the nation with 55 sacks last year. Whoever starts for Michigan will have to limit turnovers, and a raucous atmosphere and unproven pass blocking might make that difficult.
Michigan rush offense vs. Utah rush defense
Michigan’s depth chart was unclear at many positions, but running back was not one of them. According to the lineup, junior running back De’Veon Smith will start in the backfield.
The Wolverines’ offensive line has been maligned often over the past two years, but the group is much more experienced now, starting four seniors and sophomore Mason Cole, who started every game last year. If this group is going to make a jump, this is the year it will make it. But progress might be hard to come by at first.
Michigan managed just 118 yards rushing on 36 carries against Utah last year, and the Utes have another experienced front. Their rush defense ranked 41st nationally in 2014.
This is a drastically different Michigan team, and nobody knows how it will look up front. The coaches might look to the running game to settle in and loosen things up early on, but if moving the ball is tough early on, it will make for a long night.
Utah pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson is back and fully experienced for his senior year. In two-plus years as the No. 1 signal caller, he has made 27 starts, including last year’s game in Ann Arbor, though he left that game with an injury. His receiving corps is unproven, though.
As for Michigan, the Wolverines return six players who started at least one game in the secondary last season. One of them is sophomore Jabrill Peppers, who missed most of last year with an injury but will start at safety on Thursday. The defense was Michigan’s strength in 2014 and against Utah, though periodic breakdowns made it tougher to stay in games.
The Wolverines intercepted just five passes last year, often ending up on the wrong end of the turnover battle. They’ve made it a goal to improve that this season, but it might be tough in the opener against Wilson. Still, their secondary is experienced and shouldn’t have too much trouble with the Utes.
Utah rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The running game is Utah’s bread and butter. The Utes are in the early stages of a campaign to garner senior running back Devonta Booker some Heisman Trophy attention. Booker was their workhorse last year, rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wilson (309 yards, 5 TDs) is no slouch, either. And the Utes return four starters on the offensive line in front of them, though losing left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi to the NFL will hurt.
Fortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines can counter with a strength of their own. On the depth chart they released Monday, every starter in the front seven is a senior. That includes linebacker Joe Bolden, a captain, and fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan, who missed all of 2014 with an injury.
The defensive line is unproven but can rotate a lot of bodies and returns position coach Greg Mattison, the only holdover from last year’s staff. Losing sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone to a season-ending leg injury stings, but seniors Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley and Matt Godin and junior Maurice Hurst Jr. provide experience on the inside.
Michigan lost both defensive ends from last season but will replace them with a combination of senior Willie Henry, junior Taco Charlton, senior Mario Ojemudia and senior Royce Jenkins-Stone. Former coach Brady Hoke cultivated a lot of experienced talent on the defensive front, and it should be ready to pick up where it left off last season.
Michigan lost kicker/punter Matt Wile to graduation, and an unproven cast stands in his place. Special teams coordinator John Baxter said last weekend that the Wolverines will experiment with different players in the opener, playing two punters, two returners or even two kickers.
The kicking competition is between senior Kenny Allen and sophomore Kyle Seychel, while Allen and fifth-year senior Blake O’Neill, a graduate transfer from Weber State, will split the punting duties. Only Allen has Michigan experience — one punt for 51 yards in 2013. Junior safety Dymonte Thomas, junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, Chesson and Peppers will split the return duties, though with a new coordinator, no one is quite sure how the return game will look.
On Utah’s side, the kicking game is much more established. Punter Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy Award in 2014, and kicker Andy Phillips was first-team All-Pac-12. Hackett is a former Australian rules player, like O’Neill, and is the most experienced punter in Utah history. Phillips set a school record for field goals made last season.
Despite the wide margin in last year’s game, it was one special-teams play—a 66-yard punt-return touchdown by Utah’s Kaelin Clay—that made the biggest difference. If the Utes own an advantage here again, it might make things difficult for Michigan.
This one is difficult, being one of the most hyped season openers in college football this year.
Harbaugh is making his debut at his alma mater and will be eager to start off right. And after all of the offseason buildup over the past eight months, the Wolverines have to be excited to get between the lines and just play football.
At the same time, Utah will be at home and playing perhaps the biggest home game in school history. It’s a long trip for Michigan, to an unfamiliar environment, for a primetime kick. If the Wolverines aren’t ready, Utah could jump on them early. And the Utes have plenty of motivational material, with all of the attention on Harbaugh and Michigan in spite of Utah having the better 2014 season.
Prediction: Utah 23, Michigan 17