SALT LAKE CITY — Six Michigan fans spanning three generations sat around a table at the Alumni Association’s tailgate before the football team opened the 2015 season Thursday night. The youngest was Jason Liess, a junior at the University. The oldest were his grandparents, Jerome and Enid. Jerome sat reminiscing about two glorious memories of Michigan football: one 29 years ago, and one 39 years before that.
Jerome witnessed both memories, retelling them to the family and friends sitting next to him. Together, they thought maybe, just maybe, Thursday night would be one of those nights they would talk about while sitting around a table 29 years from now.
But it wasn’t. A day that began with celebration ended with a thud, with the team walking slowly off the field after a 24-17 defeat, with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and four players taking questions in a cramped, dim room at the stadium.
The Liess family got tickets for the game from Mark Messner, a two-time All-American defensive tackle who played with Harbaugh on Bo Schembechler’s Michigan teams in the 80s. Jerome told the story of when Messner recovered a fumble to help the Wolverines win the Fiesta Bowl in 1986.
Thirty-nine years before that, Jerome, then in high school, went to see Michigan play Wisconsin in Madison the year Fritz Crisler’s “Mad Magicians” went undefeated and won the national championship. On a rainy day at Camp Randall Stadium, the Wolverines, led by Bob Chappuis and Jack Weisenburger, stormed past the Badgers, 40-6.
In the present, when the pack of Michigan fans walked to Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch the Wolverines play Utah, there was no magic to be had. Michigan had every chance to pull ahead for good, but never did.
Ultimately, it ended when fifth-year senior Jake Rudock threw his third interception of the night into the hands of Utah’s Justin Thomas, who ran it back 55 yards for a touchdown. The score then stood at 24-10, Utah, with just 7:58 to play.
“I thought I could get it to him, but it kind of jumped on me,” Rudock said. “Should have obviously, in hindsight, thrown it away. I thought I could get it in there.”
The Wolverines couldn’t score on their next possession, and though they added a consolation touchdown with 54 seconds to play, they couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick.
Michigan trailed by seven at halftime, and though both teams went on long drives to start the second half, Michigan’s ended in a missed field goal and Utah’s ended in a perfect fake jet sweep, allowing quarterback Travis Wilson to stroll untouched into the end zone and double the deficit.
Still, the Wolverines marched 75 yards down the field on their next drive, finishing with a 19-yard touchdown toss from Rudock to junior tight end Jake Butt through double coverage. The record crowd of 47,825 at Rice-Eccles Stadium quieted down, and Michigan saw an opportunity.
“It just fueled us up more to go out there and get a stop on third down,” said senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley. “We were right in the game up until that last drive, so I don’t think there was ever a point where we thought, ‘Oh, man, here we go again.’ ”
Utah moved the ball on the ensuing series, but kicker Andy Phillips missed a 46-yard field goal. It was a rare second miss of the night for Phillips — giving the Wolverines the ball back, giving them an opportunity for a magical moment in a sloppy game. But the pick-six followed soon thereafter.
It was a rocky Michigan debut for Rudock, the graduate transfer from Iowa, who finished 27-for-43 with 279 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His yardage total was the highest for a Michigan quarterback since 2013, but the turnovers proved to be his downfall.
The Wolverines’ defense, expected to be even more reliable than Rudock, also had some miscues. Utah cruised down the field for 63 yards in nine plays and a 30-yard field goal on the opening drive, then did so again to retake the lead with a touchdown drive in the second quarter. Utes running back Devontae Booker carried 22 times for 69 yards and a touchdown, Wilson 12 times for 53 and another score. The only turnover Michigan forced was an interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.
“For the defense, nothing really surprised us,” said senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley. “They did exactly what we scouted for the last two weeks.”
Butt and redshirt junior Amara Darboh each caught eight passes and one touchdown, Butt for 93 yards and Darboh for 101.
Now they head home after a game so many had anticipated for so long, the team included.
“Every game, the goal is to win the next game, and that was our next game,” Harbaugh said. “We prepared well for it, worked hard for it — it was a pinnacle. That’s your next game. You build for that. We’ll do the same next week, and everything that happens from here on in is what matters the most, so that’s how we’ll approach it.”