SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham wasn’t waiting for Jim Harbaugh to tip his hand.
Amidst the shroud of mystery that surrounded the Michigan football team, submerged from the public eye for nearly all of August, Whittingham simply didn’t have time to wait.
He had a game plan to prepare, and he wasn’t going to rely on media reports to craft it.
“We don’t pay attention to what people say (out of camp),” Whittingham said. “You don’t know if what they say is going to be accurate … Very rarely do we put much stock into what comes out of the opposing camp. It’s neither here nor there to us — the silence, or whatever, doesn’t faze us.”
It showed on Thursday. The Wolverines scored a few points and made a few stops, but for Whittingham, there was little to no surprise when it came to how they did it. Utah was prepared for everything; that much was clear in the Utes’ 24-17 win.
Michigan came out as expected, starting the game with a give to junior running back De’Veon Smith up the middle. Utah stuffed him for just a two-yard gain, and so it began.
The Utes were ready for everything the Wolverines threw at them because they studied everything they might possibly see. Asked about that preparation after the game, Whittingham answered before the reporter could finish his question.
“It was tedious. It was painstaking,” he said. “A lot of it was best-guess scenario, but our assistant coaches were on the money. The things we saw on defense, from there over, were exactly what we practiced. We practiced more than what we saw, but what we did see, we had worked on all that.”
At the top of Utah’s list was the run game, since Michigan’s stable of powerful backs is the type that could wear down a defense if allowed to get going.
And Smith did his damnedest. The junior back broke tackles all night long, but Utes just kept coming at him. When he shook loose an arm tackle, someone was there to put a body on him, and when he pushed through a body, someone was there to drag him down.
It says something that Smith broke a tackle on almost every touch, but still averaged just 2.8 yards per carry.
“That was really the biggest key to our defense, other than the three interceptions,” Whittingham said. “Their (inability) to rush the ball how they wanted to was the biggest key. … We knew we needed to stand toe to toe and slug it out, just like we did last year and just like we did in ’08.”
If there was anything that surprised Utah, it was how much Rudock moved around in the backfield.
The Utes weren’t prepared for Rudock to run as many bootlegs as he did, but even that never burned them. Utah didn’t sack Rudock once on Thursday, normally a cornerstone for a team that earned the nickname “Sack Lake City” for finishing with the most sacks in the nation in 2014.
But for the most part, the Utes won Thursday by knowing what to expect. In an opening game that could have brought jitters, they weren’t rattled.
Utah senior running back Devontae Booker was a dark-horse Heisman candidate coming into the season, and Michigan kept him in check for most of the first half. But the Utes knew Michigan had a stout line. They weren’t surprised.
They kept with it, changing their style up to accommodate an advantage on the outside, and the Wolverines’ physical defensive line began to wear down. Suddenly, Utah’s run plays started working again.
Through the first half, the Utes had 21 carries for 47 yards. In the second, they ran it 16 times for 82 — 5.1 yards per carry.
“We knew what was coming,” Booker said. “We had to watch like a million different tapes of film, we just prepared ourselves throughout this week, and it paid off tonight.”
They watched film from Stanford and the 49ers to see what to expect from Harbaugh, USC for offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, the Jacksonville Jaguars to see what to expect from passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, Iowa to scout Rudock and Florida to evaluate defensive coordinator DJ Durkin.
Everyone on the staff was prepared, right down to the men handing out postgame meals.
When Whittingham walked out to the field after his postgame press conference, he did an interview with the Pac-12 Network, then turned to the guy passing out ribs from Ruby River Steakhouse. Whittingham asked him to save some for him.
“Two on your desk, coach,” he said.