The University of Michigan Football Wolverines, the 137th incarnation, toiled long and hard during fall camp under 1st year Michigan Football Coach, Jim Harbaugh. They toiled long and hard to train for a watershed season and to effectively prepare for this relative rarity, a Thursday night season opening away game. Utah was hyped, the crowd noisy, as the Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd was bulging its over 45,000 seat venue.
Some of their players had claimed to be incensed by the excessive hype the Wolverines and their new coach have received since Harbaugh’s hire. The Utes went so far as to hang a Popular Mechanics prognostication up in their locker room while pretending to be underdogs. The real underdogs, the Michigan Wolverines, endured a nasty 17 to 24 loss. While they came back late, and were not overwhelmed statistically, and pass protected superbly at times, their 2015 debut ended in a disappointing defeat to a very good Utah team.
BEFORE THE GAME: Most pundits opined this game to be Utah’s by at least 5.5 points. The Wolverines were underdogs in everybody’s book, but Utah’s. It was a Thursday night game, on a field located in an elevated region of the country with rarified air, which was considered a conditioning problem for those trained on the lower flatlands. Like Ann Arbor.
This was a significant factor to overcome in the minds of some, but not in the mind of a long time Salt Lake City resident and now Michigan Fullback, Sione Houma. He indicated in an interview that when he conditions at home (Salt Lake City), he suffers no disadvantage.
The biggest question pregame was at the QB position. It was Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock versus Shane Morris. Morris, with only two college games under his belt made a serious stab at securing the starting slot, but the more experienced and hopefully mistake proof Rudock seemed the early winner. Even after telling his QBs, the true starter was not divulged. The surprise is not that Harbaugh kept this advantage, but that his players did not leak it.
Would both prospective M QBs get significant reps? Contribute to victory? Play aggressive, but err free? Hopefully the last year’s Wolverine industrial quality offensive turn over machine has been put out of business for good, or at least has stripped a few gears for this year.
The Utes’ Coach, Kyle Wittingham selected Senior Travis Wilson as his QB, and reported it on last Monday. Wilson threw a TD for the winning Utes against the Wolverines in their losing match up last season. The Utes favored the spread then and still do.
The Utes offense still featured RB Devontae Booker, who, while not spectacularly effective against the Wolverines in last year’s game, amassed 1,571 yards last season. That was, of course, more than any Wolverine running back posted. With some great wide receivers, the Utes again had a very decent offense, and a nasty knack for being sack happy (55 for 325-yards last year) on defense.
Never in my memory, has a season started with so many ifs at so many position groups. QB, RB, WR, LBs, DB’s, Punting and Kicking.
Even so it was thought/hoped that the M QBs would benefit from the security of a non-porous OL, and that the running game was going to erupt under a trio of well-conditioned backs.
Special teams will be resurrected under Special Teams Coordinator John Baxter. Australian punter Blake O’Neill, and Kenny Allen are both accurate. At kicker, winner of the competition still was undecided between Kenny Allen, RS Freshman Kyle Seychel, and Freshman Andrew David. According to Baxter, those guys are still duking it out. Baxter indicated that none have game experience, so why pick one before pregame. Chesson, Thomas, Lewis, Peppers will be returners.
Mentioning Peppers brings us to defense. Would he play offense as well as defense? Also return punts.
That Harbaugh is an intense and focused football coach, was clearly demonstrated again by his surprise announcement August 7 that the program participants were going to submerge and not to surface again until they had done the necessary pre-season preparation. At that press conference he waxed eloquent on the smells, sights, sounds, and generally wonderful experience of intensely practicing college football for the players, and he established that he loved the experience. I thought at the time that he somewhat overstated that case with a virtual “boot camp” looming, but that hasn’t been the case.
As camp closed, and the media was again allowed access when the program surfaced, the general consensus among the players I heard was that it was a memorable event, one that they will remember long after, that it did focus and bring the players together. Desmond Morgan said that in the past fall camps were scripted, but this one was not. Outdoor practices might be held at the hottest time of day or at any other time. Jerry Hanlon said he did not attend as many practices during this period as he simply didn’t know when the practices would be held. The full times that were allowed by the NCAA for this period were utilized. That might be 10 PM closing after an early start. Coach Harbaugh’s level of participation in drills like catching punts, and being everywhere was positively commented on as unique and memorable by some of the players.
The 8 months of preseason of Coach Harbaugh’s tenure have been a spectacular success on many levels. A great assistant coaching staff had been assembled, both student and fan enthusiasm interest re-blossomed, the athletic director and head football coach successfully meshed, favorable national reputation emerged, recruiting prospered, and Adidas yielded to Nike, among other things.
In the past few years the Wolverines have not consistently prospered away from M Stadium, have lacked playmakers at the skilled positions, and have been error prone. Reference last year’s Utah game when M special teams put ten men on the field and the ran the punt back for six.
The Michigan program is not yet back to the point where it is reasonable to expect wins in every game, but Coach Harbaugh has been given all the tools that he asked for when coming to Michigan. Whether or not he has taught all the needed tools that Team 137 needs to win this year will prove out during the season. The first real marker is the result of this opening game with the Utes, but more significant games follow.
THE GAME AND COMMENTARY:
M kicked off and Kenny Allen hit it for a touchback as he did all evening. Utah hit a 30-yard FG for the first score. M-0, U-3.
On M’s first possession they moved the ball in small chunks, RB Ty Isaac getting a carry and TE Jake Butt a reception, but Michigan’s troubles at QB showed up as starter Jake Rudock tossed the first of his three interceptions. Freshman WR Grant Perry turned one way, opposite the spot that Jake was aiming at, and the die was cast on the first series of the first half as Utah intercepted the ball at Utah 14.
The Wolverines had no 1st downs in the 1st quarter. QB Jake Rudock hit WR Chesson, and then Darboh for 28-yards to start the 2nd quarter, and Allen hit a FG from 39 to knot the score at three. The defense did not hold Utah as they produced an 11-play drive for six, moving the chains by nipping off small chunks of yardage for six. Utah QB, Travis Wilson was playing well, running and passing. M-3, Utah-10. It was thought that this was a game in which the Wolverines did not want to get behind, and that turned out to be good thinking. Echoes of last year were perceptible as M had 13-yards rushing in the second quarter. Again two quarters of offensive struggles and no TDs. But the defense stiffened, and Utah missed a long FG. They missed two on the day. The Wolverines were only down by a TD at the half.
The Wolverines received to start the second half. Rudock began to move the pocket and looked somewhat revitalized, but two incompletions stalled the drive and Allen missed a FG attempt from 44. A booth review had correctly overturned a Darboh completion called good on the field.
Ute QB Travis Wilson capped a 10-play, 74-yard Utah drive with a 14-yard scamper for six, and it was M-3, U-17. M finally answered with its first TD on the day as they drove 75-yards for 6. M’s best offensive player, TE Jake Butt, grabbed a precise 24-yard Jake Rudock pass with two defenders draped over him. The Jake to Jake connection worked all afternoon as Butt gathered in 8 for 93-yards including his 24-yard TD reception.
A Utah hit at the sideline on Rudock as he rushed for a yard, and got out of bounds, had prolonged the drive. The Wolverines were fighting back, still hitting, and back in the game at the end of the 3rd quarter. This is one of the good takeaways of this game. The Wolverines rushed for 37-yards and passed for 72 in the 3rd. Not spectacular, but better.
Hopes climbed a little at the start of the 4th, as the Utes’ excellent FG kicker goal kicker missed a 46-yarder wide left.
Then the game breaking error occurred. Rudock threw an out that was well anticipated by the Ute DB, and he scampered 55-yards to score. This was a sort of a desperation pass, but afterwards Jake thought he should have thrown it away.
Coach Harbaugh was quoted afterwards, “Jake was seeing the field extremely well, making really good throws. The second interception was probably the only throw that was not a good accurate throw. Say this about Jake, he throws an interception for a touchdown. Then comes back and leads a touchdown drive. I thought that was outstanding, He shook off that play and came fighting back, as did all of our team, which you like to see”.
The Wolverines completed their scoring drive of 10-plays for 90-yards with 3 completions to Grant Perry, and 2 to Amara Darboh (who snagged 8 for 100-yards and a TD), and one each to Chesson and Butt. Amara caught the 10-yard throw for the score. Final M-17, U-24. An onside kick attempt by the Wolverines failed. The Wolverines had 113-yards passing in the last quarter.
The Wolverines were not blown out. They matched Utah’s 20 first downs, but rushed for only 76-yards, which is unacceptable. QB Jake Rudock passed for a very respectable 279-yards, but he missed a streaking and wide open Jehu Chesson twice on deep patterns.
The defense held a very good running back, Devontae Booker to 69-yards, and 1 TD, but too often could not contain QB Travis Wilson, who ran for 53-yards and passed for 208 and a TD.
While Coach Harbaugh carefully noted post game that there are many things to build on, it is disconcerting that the running game is so far from being productive. The primary running back, D. Smith ran very tough and hard, but sometimes didn’t find the lanes.
It was very encouraging that half time offensive tweaks produced a more effective running game, along with 2 TDs. Tackling was improved. No sacks were allowed. In time the defense will be very good. So will special teams. Jabrill Peppers took a KO back for 36-yards, and played some outstanding defense with 7 tackles and 1 assist. He is as advertised. LB Desmond Morgan had 8 solos and 2 assists. LB Joe Bolden had 6 solos and 7 assists.
I liked Harbaugh’s demeanor after the game. I like the way he supported his quarterback. He was not mad, and not full of doom and gloom, nor did he act beaten. He has said all along that the Wolverines had a lot of work to do. Now everyone will believe it. With the “submergence” of August, there was very little first-hand media knowledge of Wolverine realities. Know we know more.
Many questions about the Wolverines were answered, but some not definitely. Will everything continue to be Jake at quarterback? I believe a competition continues, but now there is certainty about who is number one.
Bring on Oregon State.
Thanks for reading and Go Blue!