SALT LAKE CITY — Sorry folks, summer’s over.
The return to school is a tough time for everyone, and the Michigan football team is no exception.
It happens every September: The radiant sunshine of summer is replaced with humming fluorescent lights, the freedom and optimism crushed with a strong dose of reality.
This change often produces back-to-school moments that serve as a stark reminder that it isn’t summer anymore. It can be misspelling an easy word after three months off, struggling with basic math, forgetting your notebook or, as many cartoons depict, forgetting to put on your pants.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t forget his pants — it’s nearly impossible to forget those enormous khakis at this point — but back-to-school moments were aplenty for the Wolverines on Thursday.
After a summer glimmering with good times and optimism, it felt like the first day of school prior to kickoff. Over 1,100 Michigan fans from all over the country came together at the Michigan Alumni Salt Lake City chapter’s tailgate, giddily discussing their summers, Jim Harbaugh and the endless hope of Michigan football.
But class had been in session for mere minutes before the Wolverines found themselvews on their heels with an early test against Utah. And from the opening drive to the onside kick that flew out of bounds, the back-to-school moments proved to be the difference between passing and failing.
The offensive line, returning all of its starters, committed critical false starts in its first time playing in front of a crowd since November. Sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers blew coverage in the second quarter that resulted in a 20-yard gain. Freshman receiver Grant Perry miscommunicated with graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock, resulting in two first-half picks.
Rudock had the strongest reminder of all how quickly a summer’s worth of anticipation can disappear. Midway through what looked to be a game-tying drive with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Rudock targeted Perry again on third down, but Utah cornerback Justin Thomas took it to the house instead.
The potential 14-point swing from that play alone could be seen as the difference in the game.
The silver lining for Michigan fans is that, this year, the mistakes at Utah were simply that — mistakes. A bad team wouldn’t have outgained the Utes; a lazy team wouldn’t have pieced together a touchdown drive when everyone else in the stadium thought it was over; a poorly coached team wouldn’t have played better with each passing quarter.
Speaking of coaching, Harbaugh — who had been away from the college game longer than anyone else in the program — had his share of back-to-school moments as well. There were few controversial decisions or missteps, but with each barking order and each time he placed his hands on his hips came a reminder that he works with the same mistake-prone, wide-eyed students who went 5-7 last season, not freshly picked professionals who can be signed, released and traded away on a whim.
Harbaugh may have been the biggest name in college football all summer, but dominating school is a different beast, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
There’s no shame in a one-score loss on the road to the Utes — a borderline top-25 team that won nine games last year — but it’s clear that the Wolverines have homework to do.
“For our football team, there were a lot of positives,” Harbaugh said. “(But also) some things to build on, some things to grow from in a lot of areas. I’m already thinking about them, ready to attack them.”
That’s good for the Wolverines, because though school doesn’t officially start until Sept. 8, the next test is in nine days.
Shaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @_zachshaw.