As much as we didn’t know about the Michigan football team going into the season opener Thursday at Utah, most of it shook out as expected.
Fifth-year senior Jake Rudock started at quarterback. Junior running back De’Veon Smith started at running back after being listed as No. 1 on the depth chart. The defense outpaced the offense, as it has for most of the past two seasons.
In the end, the Wolverines squandered some chances in losing a back-and-forth game in Salt Lake City. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from Thursday’s game:
Junior tight end Jake Butt was as good as advertised. Before fall camp started, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Butt the best pro tight end prospect he’s ever had. Butt was the Wolverines’ most viable offensive weapon, catching eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Michigan badly needed the touchdown, too: He pulled in a pass over the middle through double coverage, cutting the deficit to seven late in the third quarter.
Butt’s greater impact, though, was being a consistent target in short-yardage situations. Rudock completed a four-yard pass to him on 3rd-and-3 on the Wolverines’ first possession, and he relied on his tight end often as the game went on.
Michigan was also strong up front against Utah running back Devontae Booker. Booker ran for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, though just 34 of those yards came at Michigan. The Wolverines limited him again Thursday, this time to 69 yards on 22 carries.
Smith broke a number of tackles in limited open space. Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers took Michigan’s only kick return 36 yards.
And on an off-field note, the weather was good, the view was beautiful and the Michigan fan turnout strong.
The Wolverines could never truly bottle up Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. The slippery 6-foot-7, 233-pound senior was more of a running threat than in last year’s matchup, when he rushed for just 25 yards and missed part of the game with an injury.
Thursday, he opened the game by running on the first three plays for 15 yards. He finished with 53 yards on 12 carries, including a perfectly executed fake jet sweep, when he went 14 yards untouched into the end zone. That put Michigan in the first of two 14-point deficits, though the Wolverines had their chances.
Though improved, the running game struggled to gain traction. Neither Smith nor junior running back Ty Isaac averaged more than three yards per carry, and the longest run of the game was seven yards.
Michigan lost the turnover battle, failing to improve on one of its biggest weaknesses last season.
After throwing just five interceptions last year, Rudock threw three on Thursday. His two years of experience gave him the edge in the quarterback competition, but miscues were his downfall.
His first pick, which appeared to happen because of a miscommunication with freshman wide receiver Grant Perry, halted a drive just shy of the red zone. On his second, he overthrew the receiver (also Perry). His third was likely just a combination of Rudock forcing a late throw and Utah defensive back Justin Thomas making a play on yet another attempted pass to Perry. Thomas ran it back for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s defense failed to force any turnovers, save for redshirt junior Jeremy Clark’s interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. Between one Michigan giveaway in scoring position, another returned for a score and none on the defensive end, it’s hard not to point to turnovers as the difference-maker.
The Wolverines have to clean that up before Saturday’s home opener against Oregon State. If they do, they’ll have a good chance to pick up the first win of the Harbaugh era.