The time for talking, the what-ifs and the superlatives are over. Its finally time to play meaningful football.
Last Meeting: Utah won 26-10 last season at Michigan Stadium.
What a win means for Michigan: A season-opening victory would be absolutely huge for Michigan. Of course, this game means a lot from the perspective of this being Jim Harbaugh’s first game coaching at his alma mater. It’s on the road, under the lights in primetime on a Thursday night with the entire country watching, this is a big deal. For U-M to come out victorious, it might keep some of the doubters at bay, at least for now, but there is a much longer road ahead that includes high-profile games against BYU, Michigan State, and Ohio State among others. A win in Utah will go a long way with the confidence of the football team and could change the season outlook for some.
What a win means for Utah: Probably not much in the grand scheme of things. A victory over U-M would continue their recent dominance at three wins in a row. Utah is looking to prove that its nine victories last season, which included a clean-sweep of California knocking off UCLA, USC and Stanford, wasn’t just a fluke. A loss against U-M wouldn’t ruin the season for the Utes but it’s obviously important to get off on the right foot to begin the season.
Who to watch on offense and defense: The biggest offensive threat Utah will have is senior running back Devontae Booker. Booker, who many have him listed as a dark horse Heisman candidate, dominated in his first season at Utah – Booker spent his first two years at JUCO. Booker finished 2014 with 1512 yards, 10 touchdowns and received first-team All-Pac 12 honors both academically and athletically.
Not only is Booker a great runner, who averaged 5.2-yards per carry on the ground last season, but U-M will have to scheme around his ability to catch the ball as well. Utah relied heavily on him catching passes in 2014 as he finished second on the team in receptions with 43. He finished with over 300 yards and two touchdowns, which included a 100-yard receiving performance against Oregon a season ago.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s difficult to single out one player that could cause some problems for U-M. Despite the Utes having to replace talent lost to the draft or graduation, it appears it’s returning what appears to be another stout defense. If anything, senior linebacker Jared Norris is a name that U-M fans should look out for.
The Utes return a very experience linebacking corps of Norris, Gionni Paul (who might’ve been the name to watch on this list if not for foot troubles that plagued him last season), Jason Whittingham to name a few. Norris led the team in tackles last season with 116 tackles and had four sacks. It was clear that Norris was one of the most reliable linebackers the Utes had outside of Nate Orchard last season. With Orchard now with the Cleveland Browns, the Utes are hoping that Norris can continue to be reliable going forward.
What they’re saying: Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham (all quotes from UtahUtes.com):
- On research preparing for Jim Harbaugh: “We studied both his 49ers and Stanford teams and Florida for defensive stuff [Defensive Coordinator D.J. Durkin was Florida’s Defensive Coordinator from 2013-14] and the Jacksonville Jaguars where their [Passing Game Coordinator/Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers Coach Jedd Fisch] was. John Baxter, who is an outstanding special teams coach, was at USC, so it’s a hodgepodge of five, six or seven different places that we’ve formed a best-guess scenario. That’s the best you can hope for anyway because you never know. Even when you have a returning staff, there are still changes that can be made in the offseason and different schematics. When you have a new staff, anything is in the realm of possibility. We feel like we have a general idea of what to expect. You try to expose your players to virtually everything you think they might see during fall camp and build a game plan that will be able to accommodate all of the possibilities. But the key is in-game adjustments after the second or third series when you get a feel of what they’re trying to do or what their M.O. is. You can’t wait until halftime. You have to adjust in game on the sidelines and get those adjustments down so you can make corrections and get people in the right places or any changes in structure or anything you need to do to make sure you’re doing things right. That’ll be a huge part of determining the outcome of the game, which team is better able to make those [adjustments]. We may have a bigger challenge than [Michigan] in that we haven’t changed a whole lot schematically.”
- On keys to beating U-M: “Our guys playing hard and being relentless. You’re going to make some mistakes in the first game out. The old adage is that you improve the most from game one to game two because in game one there are a lot of guys playing their first NCAA Division I game so mistakes can be made. But if you have max effort, you can cover up those mistakes. Hustle will cover up a lot of things you’re not doing right and allow you to continue to have success.”
- On U-M’s pro-style offense: “We hope that we’re physical enough to stand up to it. We usually are able to handle whatever people throw at us, most weeks. But there have been so many years now, where the pro-style attack has just diminished. It’s almost like our guys are not used to playing it any more. In fact, we base out of a 4-3 defense but last year was the first year that a majority of the snaps were not out of base defense. They were out of the nickel package and some of the sub-packages. Each year, it seems like you see [the pro-style offense] less and less. We have guys still in the program who played against it four or five years ago, like when Jared Norris first got here there were more teams doing that. We feel like we’re a physical team and we have matched up well against those attacks, but they’re so few and far between that we hope to continue that.”
- On U-M’s front seven and Jabrill Peppers: “Peppers is a good player. I know they missed him last year when he got hurt. He will also probably do some punt and kickoff returning for them possibly. As I mentioned, the [defensive] coordinator [D.J. Durkin] is from Florida. And what you saw from Florida all of last year is going to be a big influence on what they do this year, which was mixing an odd and even front, a lot of middle close secondary stuff as opposed to two-high safety or single-high safety, pressure and zero blitzes in the red zone. They are things that aren’t really that out of the ordinary, but we’ve been putting stock into what Florida did last year. And of course, we were watching Michigan tape for personnel matchups for the guys they have returning.”
- On the significance on U-M game: “This game is no more significant than any other Pac-12 game or any other game. They all count as one. What’s significant in a respect is, like I mentioned, to have Michigan leave the ‘Big House’ [Michigan Stadium] and come here to play. That would have never happened five or six years ago and beyond. Maybe you’d see it happen way back, I don’t know what the situations were then, but in recent history that is something that is significant but as far as a big game, I don’t think it’s any bigger than Oregon, USC, UCLA or Fresno State. We have to take them one game at a time. That’s our focus right now. Like I said earlier, our guys have been in a lot of big games in a lot of big venues and handled it very well. Michigan is steeped in tradition, one of the most storied programs in all of college football. It’s certainly a little bit different, quite a bit different, as far as your mindset back in January as opposed to maybe opening up with a lesser opponent. But as far as how we treat it and the importance of it, it’s all the same. I hope it’s a record crowd and I hope they see something unique. That’s nothing but speculation. I have nothing to back that up, other than tickets are hard to get right now.”
U-M kicks off against Utah at 7 p.m. EST on Fox Sports 1.