It was billed as the welcome back to college football for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, but Utah acted as a rude host as the Utes took down Big Blue with a 24-17 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night.
It wasn't the prettiest of games, but the opener often isn't, as the Utes had a few glaring mistakes that Michigan was unable to capitalize on, allowing Utah to 'escape' with the win.
Let's start with the positives, and that begins with senior quarterback Travis Wilson playing arguably his best overall regular season game as a Ute, often carrying the offense with a composure and pocket presence that we've rarely seen from the often maligned signal caller. Wilson was decisive for much of the game, getting the ball out quick and on target to his receivers and allowing them to make plays once the ball was in their hands. The early throws to Bubba Poole helped Wilson get into a rhythm, while Britain Covey's sure-hands and elusiveness gave the passing game a new type of threat that we haven't seen at Utah in years. Wilson ran the read option very well, making the correct decision time and time again, while running the ball with tremendous effectiveness.
Don't draw any conclusions on his 0-1 touchdown to interception ratio as Covey came up an inch short of one TD, and the interception was on a tipped hail-mary to end the half. Draw your conclusions on how Wilson carried himself throughout the game in making smart throws and showing a level of consistent accuracy that we've rarely seen. 24 of 33 doesn't even tell the whole story as he wasn't helped out a ton by some of his receivers with drops (I'm looking at you Kenneth Scott).
At the end of the day, the play of Wilson is an encouraging sign for the Utes as he showed that when the running game is being bottled up, he can still lead the Utes to a win over a tough opponent. Maybe those final two weeks of fall camp weren't a mirage and Utah finally has their quarterback capable of leading them to a Pac 12 South crown.
While Wilson was very good and Booker was serviceable with 69 yards, the offensive line has to be better. Michigan's line is good, and one of the better lines that Utah will see all season. They're also huge and the Utes struggled to get a good push as consistently as they would have liked. USC, UCLA, and Stanford will all send out lines that are almost as big, so progress must be made. Same Tevi? What happened? It's not like Wilson was under a ton of pressure, but when he was, it was often coming from Tevi's side. The first time starter often looked lost out there, including one play where he dropped back in pass protection and did almost a full circle in looking for his man. Too flat footed at times, you have to wonder if there were first game jitters for a guy that had never played that position in a real game. Isaac Asiata was beat too often on the interior and was often getting tossed around by the Michgan front. This group needs to get better before they take on a dangerous Utah State defense.
I'm not sure what to think of the receivers yet as the Utes relied heavily on the youngsters, running backs, and tight ends (where the hell were these guys in fall camp?). Britain Covey was dynamic, Booker and Poole showed their versatility, and both Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley had good games. The deep threat never materialized though, and that has to concern Ute fans unless it was by design and the Utes will start breaking that out once they take on their first big threat in Oregon in a few weeks.
All in all, a decent day out of the offense, but nothing spectacular. Clean up the mistakes on the line, quit it with the drops out of the receivers, air it out a bit more in the passing game to help Booker, and things should be just fine.
Sack Lake City; where have you gone? Remarkably, Utah had ZERO sacks against the Wolverines on Thursday, and not many pressures either. The max protect by Michigan didn't allow for the Utes to get much of a pass rush going, but it was surprising to see John Pease keep it pretty vanilla and not send more than 3 or 4 pass rushers. The staple of Utah's pass rush last season was a variety of blitz packages, but we didn't see much of that on Thursday night. Nate was missed and it's clear that they don't have a guy that can take on a double team against a good line and win many matchups in getting to the QB. Now, Michigan's line was better than anyone expected so tip your hat to them, but USC and UCLA probably have better lines than the Wolverines and with more dynamic playmakers and better QBs, may try using the same formula to keep their QBs upright and let their athletes, that are superior to those of the Wolverines, make plays. I'm nitpicking though as the line had a pretty good game, especially in stopping the run. Jason Fanaika and Lowell Lotulelei were monsters out there and constantly causing havoc.
The linebacking corps did their job with plenty of tackles, mostly by Gionni Paul, but his two personal fouls were foolish, with the second one leading to 7 points for Michigan. Can't let that happen. Better coverage on the tight ends would be nice, but some of that falls on the safeties that were coming up to cover Jake Butt, who had a big game for the Utes. Jason Whittingham had an off-night. Maybe it's just rust, but he missed on too many tackles and looked slow.
Up and down game for the secondary who were bailed out by a quarterback that couldn't hit the deep ball. Three times Michigan receivers were able to get behind the defense with the worst offense being Butler-Bird's disaster coverage (couldn't tell if he just got beat badly or if he thought he had help behind him) that should have been 6 for Michigan. Butler-Bird did get off to a nice start though with his erly interception that effectively erased would-be Michigan points. Tevin Carter had 9 tackles, but looked a bit slow out there at times and was hobbled again, but Marcus Williams had a nice game that included an interception, while Justin Thomas had one of his better games as a Ute, highlighted by his pick 6.
What happened to the special teams? Tom Hackett was jobbed by the officials on a late punt that clear went out of bounds and they called a touchback, but he struggled to keep the ball from going into the end zone often on his punts. The leg is still there though as evidenced by the 70+ yarder. It's only week 1, but you have to wonder why Andy Phillips missed two field goals so badly? They were both deeper kicks, but well within his range and both misses weren't even close. Phillips is still talented enough to be the best kicker in the conference, but his late season woes from last year seemed to have carried over to 2015, which negates what was expected to be one of Utah's biggest strengths.
At the end of the day, Utah got the win against a team that was probably a bit better than we expected, and now has two lesser opponents to help clean things up before Pac 12 play. It wasn't perfect, but there should be a lot of optimism with this team based on what we saw in game one. If Travis Wilson can play like this for 10+ games this year, a Pac 12 South title is well within reach.