It was a game of firsts for the Michigan football team: The first game under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, the first game in adidas uniforms and the first significant playing time for its two quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan and redshirt freshman Steven Threet.
But the first win of the new era proved elusive as the Wolverines couldn’t complete a late comeback effort and lost to Utah, 25-23, in front of 108,421 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
While there were certainly some bright spots on both sides of the ball — especially the defense’s second-half emergence and a near-comeback in the fourth quarter — the Wolverines generally failed to translate their schemes from the practice field to the confines of the Big House.
“I told our team I didn’t think they quit, they played hard, stayed into the game, we got a little lift in the second half, but they didn’t execute,” Rodriguez said after the game.
Many of Michigan’s struggles to move the ball on offense seemed to stem from inexperience, with three true freshmen starting on offense.
Rodriguez wouldn’t publicly name his starting quarterback in the week leading up to the game, but Sheridan came out for Michigan’s first offensive series.
Sheridan led Michigan to an early touchdown on an eight-yard pass to true freshman running back Michael Shaw. The drive benefited from a muffed punt recovery by Utah and a pass interference call against the Utes inside the 10-yard line.
It was the first career touchdown for both players.
But Sheridan didn’t show great poise in the pocket. It especially hurt the Wolverines with less than a minute remaining in the first half, when he lobbed a pass that was easily intercepted by Utah’s Sean Smith. The Utes were leading 15-10 at the time, and scored a touchdown with 18 seconds left to take a 12-point lead into the half.
“The ball kind of sailed on me a little bit,” Sheridan said. “We’ll go back and watch film and see, but I felt pretty good out there. But obviously we have a lot of room to improve.”
Threet got his first game action in the second half and fared better than Sheridan, leading the Wolverines to within a two-point conversion of tying the game late in the fourth quarter.
The Georgia Tech transfer threw the best deep pass of the day for Michigan, a 33-yard touchdown to Junior Hemingway in the fourth quarter.
“Coach told me Thursday Nick would get the start but that I’d be playing, so he told me to make sure I’m taking every mental rep even though I might not be in there,” Threet said. “Staying in it mentally definitely helped.”
Michigan’s coaching staff expected the inexperienced offense to struggle at times in the game. The defense was expected to be a stalwart, but that wasn’t the case in the first half.
Although the defense had practiced all summer against the spread offense, it looked bewildered early against Utah, allowing 313 yards of total offense in the first half.
But it came out of the half much improved, allowing Utah just three points and 28 total yards the rest of the way.
“We didn’t show up in the first half,” fifth-year senior linebacker John Thompson said. “Obviously, we showed up in the second half. There was a little bit more pressure on us, we had to show up or we were going to get embarrassed. There’s no excuse why we didn’t play better in the first.”
The second half offered some positives for Michigan, especially on the defensive side of the ball. After watching film on Sunday, the coaching staff called on the Wolverines to play a faster, more physical game in the future — or risk not seeing the field at all.
“I didn’t think we played very physical,” Rodriguez said yesterday. “I thought we played very tentative at times and were thinking a little too much.”
With far less time to prepare for Miami (Ohio) than it had for Utah, Michigan will have to answer many of the lingering questions soon. Otherwise, the first win of the Rodriguez era could be a long time coming.