Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Michigan Defensive Backs
Utah’s got weapons. We’ve seen it for two games. They're real, and it starts at quarterback with Travis Wilson. Wilson has made huge strides in his two games this season despite playing in just the first halves of each. The big signal-caller is number two in the country in passer rating and has been lights-out against lesser competition. He hasn't been perfect, but the way he has commanded the offense, made the throws in front of him, and done it without risking turnovers has been very impressive. His decision-making in both the run game and throw game are leaps and bounds better than last season. The junior may be taking a step towards being an upper-echelon Pac-12 quarterback if he continues to improve at this rate. A big reason for that includes the playmakers around him at wide receiver. Dres Anderson is one of the top 20 receivers in the country and is making defensive backs look silly. Helping to make Dres’ job easier is Kenneth Scott. With his size, frame, good hands, and ability to make plays in the air he’s the perfect complement to Anderson’s speed. Utah has benefited from 17 catches for 329 yards and 5 touchdowns between the two of them through 2 games. There’s depth behind them as well with young guys like Tim Patrick, Delshawn McClellon, Kaelin Clay, and others that all bring different attributes to the passing game making it a very dangerous attack.
Michigan’s a bit banged up in the secondary. Raymon Taylor is a very good corner, but missed most of the Notre Dame matchup and sat out against Miami(OH) as well. His status against Utah is unknown. He led the team in tackles in 2013 and notched 4 interceptions as well. If healthy, you’ll likely see him matched up with Dres Anderson. If Taylor can’t go, sophomore Jourdan Lewis likely gets the nod. Opposite Taylor is Jarrod Wilson, a big-bodied corner at 6'2" 205 pounds who likely draws the matchup with Kenneth Scott. He was a part-time starter in 2013 picking off two passes. At the nickel back spot is true freshman Jabril Peppers, one of the top recruits in the country from last season. He’s 6'1" 202 pounds with great speed, skill, and instincts. A no-doubt-about-it next level guy. Peppers missed the Notre Dame game with an injury but returned last week against Miami(OH) posting three tackles in the contest. Senior Delonte Holloway will also get some run and could move into the starting lineup if the Wolverines decide to move Pepper outside if Taylor can’t go. Junior Jarrod Wilson is another returning starter in the secondary at safety. He had 2 picks in 2013 while fellow safety is a first year starter this season and still pretty raw. On the season this group has picked off only one pass, but has been pretty stingy through the air giving up only 172 yards a game. Should be a fun battle.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Michigan Linebackers
So who gets the first carry this week for Utah, Bubba Poole or Devontae Booker? Who gets the most carries? If it’s Poole, Utah fans may revolt. Bubba is a fine back who does a lot of things well, but Booker has looked like an elite back, one with a combination of size, power, speed, and shiftiness that the Utes haven’t seen in a long time. Poole has had a decent start to the year averaging 48 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Booker, though, is averaging 72.5 yards per game on the ground in limited touches with 7.2 yards per carry. Throw in 1 catch for 61 yards and the Utes should have their feature back. Troy McCormick will spell the other two at times with his combination of speed and vision, but hasn’t yet shown the same consistency as the other two feature backs so far this season. Don’t forget tight end Westlee Tonga who has had a very good start to the year with 6 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. He’s developed into a more than reliable threat and Wilson will use him in a variety of ways.
Michigan has a very good linebacker group led by senior Jake Ryan and junior Joe Bolden who have 31 and 33 tackles respectively on the year. Appalachian State did put up 153 yards on the ground in the opener, but only 56 of those came in the first half when the Wolverines had already staked themselves to a 35-0 lead with their first team defense. 27 were on the first play of the game. 33 yards on the ground on 24 carries for Miami(OH) and only 54 in 31 carries for Notre Dame are pretty impressive numbers. Add it all up the Wolverines are giving up only 80 yards per game on the ground and an average of 2.6 per carry. Some credit goes to the line, but it’s the linebackers that really slow down the run game. Junior Royce Jenkins-Stone rounds out the trio.
Utah Offensive Line vs Michigan Defensive Line
They haven't been tested much by some pretty bad lines from Idaho State and Fresno State, but the Utah offensive line should be commended for keeping Travis Wilson free of hits and opening up plenty of big holes for the running backs. Jeremiah Poutasi has looked like the left tackle we expected to see last season with his offseason weight loss and improved health. His first step is quick and his drive in the run game has been very good. Junior Salt hasn't played at the elite level most expected he would, but he has still been decent. He missed most of the last game against Fresno State after getting rolled up on but he should be good to go on Saturday. Siaosi Aiono's return against Fresno State gave the line a noticeable boost. The interior push on the line in the run game was much better with him under center after missing game 1. Now to the right side and the big question mark. Isaac Asiata has performed ok, but against a big Michigan defensive line he's going to have to be better than he was in the first game. Does right tackle JJ Dielman have the size and strength to slow down the Michigan pass rushers? This is going to be a real test for both Asiata and Dielman as to whether or not they're the answers at right guard and right tackle going forward.
Well, they're big on that Michigan defensive line. Really big. They are led by 277 pound defensive end Frank Clark. The senior was a second team all Big 10 performer a year ago after notching 4.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He's not a speed rusher by any means, but he's a monster against the run and is very physical at the point of attack. He'll be a tough matchup for the Utah tackles and will often draw double-teams. The Irish go with a couple of sophomores inside in Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow. Glasgow is a first year starter while Henry had 9 starts in 2013. Watching Michigan against Notre Dame, the defensive tackles looks like the weakness on the line, but barely. They're still very stout and Utah is going to have trouble moving them around in the run game. Defensive end Brennen Beyer can also play some outside linebacker, but seems to have found his role as a rush end. He has two sacks already this season and is probably the Wolverines best pass rusher. Another name to watch out for is true freshman Bryan Mone, the local prospect out of Highland High School. Mone is already seeing the field and is coming off a 3 tackle performance from the tackle position two weeks ago against Notre Dame.
Michigan Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utah Defensive Backs
It all starts with 5th year senior QB Devin Gardner, as he’s been the Wolverines starter for the past 3 seasons. Through 3 games Gardner is averaging 182 yard passing, he's completing 68.2% of his passes, and he has 5 TD’s versus 4 INT’s. Not exactly overwhelming stats, especially when you consider they’ve played an FCS team and one of the worst FBS teams in the country in Miami(OH). For the most part, Gardner is an accurate thrower. He completes a lot of passes, but he is also mistake-prone and has had the tendency to throw INT’s when pressured (evidenced by his 20 career INT’s in 3 seasons as a starter). Where Gardner will hurt you is if you allow him to escape the pocket. He moves really well for a 6’4" 215lb QB and is pretty good at throwing on the run. While he certainly doesn’t look to beat you with his feet, he definitely has the ability to do so. If you can pressure him and keep him in the pocket, he’s likely to throw multiple INT’s.
As for the receivers, the headliner of the group may be the Wolverines best player on the team. Devin Funchess has NFL stamped all over his 6’5" 230lb frame. Funchess isn’t just a big body though. He has extremely long legs that allow him to out-run linebackers and even safeties. Funchess has already caught 16 passes for 202 yards and 3 TD’s this season, and that’s only in 7 quarters of football. But that’s where things get hairy for him. In the 4th quarter of the blowout loss to Notre Dame, Funchess injured his foot and subsequently missed the following week's game against Miami(OH). Michigan keeps a tight lip on injuries, much like Utah, so it’s unclear what his status is heading in to the matchup on Saturday. If he plays, he’s a game-changer. If he isn’t good to go, sophomore Amara Darboh is the next go-to guy for the Wolverines. Darboh had 6 catches for 88 yards and a TD against the RedHawks last week and showed good ability to separate from defenders. Dennis Norfleet, a small speedy receiver, and Jehu Chesson, another big framed receiver, round out the receiver group for Michigan. Overall they’re a very solid unit, but if Funchess can't go they quickly turn from dangerous to very average.
The weakest unit on the Utah defense is without question the secondary. Although they’re only allowing 220 passing yards per game, the inability to force interceptions and numerous pass interference penalties is a concern. At safety, Tevin Carter and Brian Blechen have proved to be exceptional in run support, but haven’t been tested much in the pass game. Carter was tested a few times against Fresno State and for the most part did his job, but still displayed a few mental errors in regards to not being where he needed to be. Blechen will mostly cover slot receivers, tight ends, and occasionally a running back, and has fared well in the first two games. Things get hairy for the Utes though when you look at the cornerbacks. Senior Eric Rowe has great speed and is great in run support, but was beaten deep a few times against Fresno. In his defense, he was facing a sure-fire NFL receiver in Josh Harper, but things won’t be much easier against Michigan, especially if Funchess plays. Rowe needs to do a better job at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, and then not grabbing too much of them. At the other corner spot is sophomore Dominique Hatfield who just was made a full-time corner a couple weeks ago. Hatfield may be the most talented of the cornerbacks, but he's still adjusting to the defensive playbook, speed, and the technique of the position. He’ll only get better as gets more reps, but Utah needs him to age quickly. Sophomore nickel back Justin Thomas provided a spark to the Ute secondary in game two as he had 3 pass breakups and looked very aggressive in his first game of the season. The top three corners for the Utes are good, but if they have to dig too deep into their bench things could get bad quick. Seniors Davion Orphey and Wykie Freeman have not had good showings this season.
Edge: Michigan (assuming Funchess plays)
Michigan Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
Derrick Green is the feature back and he’s a load at 5'11" 220 pounds. The sophomore is averaging over 100 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry, but most of that success came against patsies Appalachian State and Miami(OH). When the Wolverines took on Notre Dame, he tallied only 25 yards on 13 carries. Right behind Green is a runner with similar measureables. De'Veon Smith has 180 yards so far at an average of 7.9 per carry. Justice Hayes has chipped in 69 yards on 10 carries through 3 games. The Wolverines are going to try to run it, run it, and run it some more. That's their bread and butter. If wide receiver Devin Bunchess is out, you can expect Michigan to stick heavily to the run game. Tight end Jake Butt is a huge target at 6'6" 249 pounds and is a very talented player. He registered 20 catches last season as a freshman.
Welcome back Gionni Paul. Goodbye Jason Whittingham. We’ll call it a wash as an all-conference caliber linebacker is expected to return from injury while another all-conference caliber linebacker is out with an injury. Jared Norris has been solid so far in two games, tied for the team lead in tackles with 14 to go along with 2 tackles for loss. Uaea Masina could get more run if Paul can’t play every snap. Throw in Nate Orchard if they decide to drop him like they did against Fresno State and this linebacking group gets some added depth, and most importantly, a real playmaker. So far this year the Utes are giving up 117 yards per game on the ground at an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
You can probably expect Utah to play more of their base 4-3 defense than they have at any point this season trying to slow down a Michigan team that loves the run game. Utah’s depth at linebacker will really be tested on Saturday.
Michigan Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
There’s a lot of inexperience and youth on that Michigan offensive line, and it starts at the left tackle spot where true freshman Mason Cole will get the nod. Cole is the first true freshman in the history of Michigan football to start the season opener on the offensive line. The former 4-star prospect struggled against a tremendous defense from Notre Dame, specifically in pass protection. Across from Cole is sophomore Ben Braden who is also a new starter this season making his debut in the first 11 in the season opener. He’s a big kid at 6'6" 322 pounds, but if the Notre Dame game is any indication he still has a ways to go before being a consistent tackle. In short, these tackles are talented, but still very green. The pocket collapsed quickly against the Irish. Not ideal for the Wolverines when facing guys like Orchard and Dimick on Saturday. Despite what appears to be issues in pass protection, Michigan’s line has allowed only four sacks through three games. The run blocking is better than the pass blocking, and that shows up in the production they’ve had on the ground. An average of 242 yards per game is impressive, but when looking at the opponents, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Against Notre Dame they produced just 35 carries for 100 yards. 17 tackles for loss allowed is a high number and a lot of that came against Notre Dame. The interior of Michigan’s line is better than the two young tackles with more experience. Junior left guard Graham Glasgow has 15 starts under his belt and can play at a variety of different spots on the line. Junior center Jack Miller has 7 career starts.
Nate Orchard must be licking his chops with a true freshman left tackle lining up and trying to stop him. Orchard has been one of the top defenders in the Pac-12 through two games notching 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery in limited time due to lopsided scores. He’s shown a consistent burst that was missing in the past and more power moves in his pass rush than we’ve seen before. Throw in the versatility of playing linebacker against Fresno State and you’re looking at Trevor Reilly 2.0 in everything he’s able to do. If Orchard is excited about going against some youth, Hunter Dimick is likely in the same boat. The sophomore was very good against Idaho State and then tremendous versus Fresno State. With 2.5 sacks already this year and plenty of quarterback pressures, Dimick looks poised to continue his breakout year. While the interior of Utah’s line looked much improved from game one to game two, there are still concerns about their ability to hold up against a big, physical group. Clint Shepard has been impressive getting into the backfield, but holding his ground in run support has been a weakness. Seni Fauonuku hasn’t been consistent through two games and neither has Filipo Mokofisi. Against a Michigan offense that is going to try to run it up the middle, they’ll need to play assignment-sound football to slow down the run game.
In short: Utah has the edge outside. Michigan has the edge inside, Utah's edge is greater.
Utah Special Teams vs Michigan Special Teams
Without question, the most solid and reliable phase of Utah Football right now (and for the foreseeable future) is the special teams unit. Top to bottom, punting, kicking, and returning, you may be watching the best special teams unit in the country and undoubtedly the best in the Pac-12. Utah has the best punter in the conference in Tom Hackett. He is arguably the best in the country (he is leading the nation in average punting at 51.1 yards per punt). He has punted the ball only 10 times this season and has seen just one of those returned. It was returned 3 feet. When Utah needs to flip field position or pin Michigan deep in their own territory they will be able to call on Mr. Hackett with confidence to do just that.
Andy Philips blossomed into a star last year and hasn't missed a beat this year. He is perfect on PATs (16-16) and FGs (1-1). He has also been better on kickoffs with 15 of his 19 kickoffs going for touchbacks and his 61 kickoff return yards is best in the Pac-12. When it comes to kickoff returns Utah is tops in the Pac-12 with an average return yardage of 41.5 yards. Having Kaelin Clay deep means Utah is a constant threat at scoring, though I'm not sure he will get kicked to much this weekend. However you examine or manipulate the numbers, Utah has a lopsided advantage in the special teams category and hopefully that will be enough to tip the scales in Utah's favor on Saturday.
Michigan has returned five kickoffs this year for a total of 94 yards, and four punts for 56 yards, with no TD's coming from either. They do have a dangerous return man in Dennis Norfleet who is averaging 31 yards per return, so look for Utah to go for touchbacks to take him out of play. The kicking game for Michigan is where Utah can look to take advantage if they can keep Michigan out of the end zone. Michigan has attempted six field goals this year and has only connected on three of them. If Utah can keep Michigan from getting deep into Utah territory and force them into field goal attempts it will be a huge win for the Utes. Matt Wile, Michigan's placekicker, is perfect inside of 40 yards this season but only 1-4 from 40-49 yards. Keeping Michigan out of the end zone is obvious, but keeping them outside of the 25 will be critical.
Andrew Gorringe, Jayson Jones, and Brian Swinney contributed to this report.
Game Matchups: Utah at Michigan
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