Wolverine fans descended on Salt Lake City from across the country, but there was no storybook opening to coach Jim Harbaugh’s career at Michigan. The Michigan football team fell to Utah, 24-17, at Rice-Eccles Stadium to open the season.
The Wolverines were slow to start, but that was to be expected of a team that sputtered to a 5-7 mark last season. Harbaugh, though, stuck up for his players’ effort after the game, praising them where it was deserved and defending them from even their own self-criticism.
Here are five things we learned from the season-opening loss.
1. Jake Rudock has weapons…
Junior tight end Jake Butt was already a player to watch — he was named to the Mackey Award watch list in July — but he somehow still outperformed expectations in the season opener. After catching 21 passes in an injury-hampered 2014, Butt caught eight for 93 yards and a touchdown Thursday. He made arguably the play of the night for Michigan, grabbing a touchdown through double coverage.
Redshirt junior receiver Amara Darboh also impressed, stepping into his role as the No. 1 receiver with eight catches for 101 yards and a score. Both Darboh and Butt were Rudock’s primary targets in high-pressure situations, and for the most part, they came through for him.
2. …If he can just hit them
Rudock, who was heralded as the safe, consistent option at quarterback, was anything but that against Utah. The fifth-year senior overthrew redshirt junior Jehu Chesson and Darboh three times on deep balls, one of which would likely have gone for a score.
What’s more, Rudock was intercepted three times, a stunning development for a player who threw just five picks all of last season. We’ll give him a slight pass on the first, which looked like a miscommunication with freshman receiver Grant Perry, but even so, it wasn’t what was expected of the graduate transfer.
3. The defensive line could wreak havoc
Redshirt juniors Willie Henry and Chris Wormley were forces on the outside, combining for nine tackles, four of them for loss. Henry, who moved to the strong-side defensive end from defensive tackle this year, was nearly unblockable at his new position, a great sign for defensive line coach Greg Mattison.
Senior Mario Ojemudia, a converted end who plays the hybrid buck position, also seemed to embrace his new position, tallying five tackles and a sack.
On the inside, senior Ryan Glasgow and redshirt junior Matt Godin weren’t game breakers, but they may not need to be. The Wolverines would welcome statistical production from them, but with so much talent on the edges, it might be enough to simply occupy their blockers and help collapse the pocket.
4. The run blocking needs to improve
The inside of the line just couldn’t seem to create openings for Michigan’s backs. Harbaugh said senior center Graham Glasgow earned the highest grade of the offensive linemen in Thursday’s game, and singled him out as having a great performance, but Michigan's backs couldn’t generate anything up the middle.
The Wolverines averaged 2.6 yards per carry in their opener, including 2.8 from junior running back De’Veon Smith. Those numbers will need to improve if they intend to be a run-first team.
Smith broke all kinds of tackles against the Utes, which had to be encouraging to Harbaugh and new running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley. Unfortunately for Smith, many of those broken tackles came at the line of scrimmage. If Michigan can create wider holes, and Smith can find and hit them, he looks like someone who can churn out chunks of yards at a time.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Butt will lead the team in catches
While Darboh proved himself as a capable No. 1 receiver against Utah, Butt’s value as a safety valve will pay huge dividends for Rudock. His size and athleticism pose matchup problems for virtually anyone who could cover him, as the Utes learned Thursday.
After his eight catches in the opener, opposing teams will be keying on Butt, but that doesn’t mean they can stop him. He will be an option on nearly every pass play, and unless they ignore Chesson and Darboh outside, he’ll find ways to get open.
The Jake-to-Jake connection is only just beginning.