SALT LAKE CITY — Jake Rudock did not remove his helmet as he walked off the field when the clock hit zero in his Michigan football debut. He traveled alone, acknowledging none of the chaos behind him as Utah celebrated its 24-17 victory.
Rudock, who threw just five interceptions last season in 345 attempts for Iowa, had just thrown three picks in 43 attempts the first time he donned the Michigan uniform in a game. The debut was not the one he had hoped for. Rudock did not emit anything vaguely resembling a smile in his postgame press conference.
He had been informed just days earlier that he would start the season opener, having defeated junior Shane Morris in a battle that lasted almost the entirety of fall camp. Rudock had widely been considered the safe choice, sure-handed with the ball and unlikely to turn it over. But after his first game as a Wolverine, Rudock was left to explain his mistakes.
The fifth-year senior characterized each of his interceptions differently. The first, a pick that ended a 54-yard drive when Michigan had marched to Utah’s 21-yard line, was the result of a miscommunication between himself and freshman wide receiver Grant Perry. As the veteran in the situation, Rudock was willing to shoulder most of the blame.
“Part of your job as quarterback is to protect the ball, protect the ball and manage the game, however cliché you guys like that,” Rudock said. “It’s just, obviously, you don’t want to throw picks.”
Rudock classified the second, also intended for Perry, a “bad ball,” a mistake that was completely his fault. The third interception, when Rudock’s intended target was in man coverage, was different. Before he threw the ball, which Utah cornerback Justin Thomas returned 55 yards for a touchdown, Rudock thought he was making a sound decision. In hindsight, he said, he wished he had thrown the ball away.
After that final pick, the one that seemingly crushed Michigan’s chances for victory by allowing the Utes to extend their lead to 14 once again, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, making a debut of his own, albeit a more publicized one, wrapped his arm around his quarterback as they stood alone on the sideline. Harbaugh consoled Rudock, assuring him that Thomas had merely made a good play.
“He tried to stick it in there, and it went the other way,” Harbaugh said. “Welcome to football.”
After the game, Harbaugh said he considered only Rudock’s second interception to be a bad throw. Otherwise, he believed his quarterback had made the right plays. What impressed Harbaugh most, though, was how Rudock reacted to his pick-six.
“I’ll say this about Jake — you throw an interception for a touchdown and then you come back and lead a touchdown drive, I thought that was outstanding,” Harbaugh said.
Two drives after his final interception, Rudock completed six of eight passes in orchestrating a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Though it was meaningless after Michigan’s unsuccessful onside kick attempt with 54 seconds left, it allowed Rudock to further his rapport with the receivers.
He connected with Perry three times for 41 yards on the drive, and fed both redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh and junior tight end Jake Butt their eighth receptions of the game.
After just one summer with his new receivers because of his transfer, Rudock, for the most part, appeared to be in sync with Butt and Darboh for most of the night. With their eight receptions, each accumulated more than 90 yards receiving. Rudock’s mentality, despite the apparent struggles that also included a couple of costly overthrows, impressed Butt.
“He’s a fighter,” Butt said.
Rudock, still stone faced after he gathered his belongings to head to the team bus, looked straight ahead and spoke to nobody as he left Rice-Eccles Stadium. Michigan football recruiting coordinator Erik Campbell watched as he walked by and whispered into Rudock’s ear.
Then, the quarterback, after a debut to forget, disappeared.