Last night's Utah/Michigan game wasn't always the most aesthetically pleasing football game, but it sure was a lot of fun. There was a great energy with the record crowd in Salt Lake, we got a first look at what Michigan looked like under new Supreme Commander and President For Life Jim Harbaugh, and also, the Wolverines lost to the Utes, 24-17. I laughed more than a few times.
But Utah is probably pretty alright, this was on the road, and Michigan is almost assuredly going to get better. This is what I took away from the game.
1) The fact that Michigan's passing game struggled at times is not a surprise. We knew Michigan didn't really have much in the way of a quarterback, and that don't have much in the way of experienced pass catching weapons outside of Jake Butt and Amara Darboh. The more troubling thing is that Michigan's running game didn't look like it improved that much.
Granted, Utah's front seven is mean and nasty, and Salt Lake City at night is a tough place to play, but even so. Michigan's offensive line, still chock full of four stars all along the depth chart, struggled to get much of a push, and even when they did, Michigan's running backs didn't exactly explode through those holes or make the right reads. As a team, the Wolverines rushed for only 2.8 yards a carry, and the five-star duo of Derrick Green and Ty Issac combined for 13 yards on six carries in very limited duty.
The Wolverines could be tested by defensive fronts with Oregon State and BYU before league play, and if there is one positional group where the Big Ten East should be very solid, it's along the defensive line. Michigan purportedly has the raw talent to make a power running game work, and they should improve, but how much will determine whether this is a team that backs into a lower-end bowl, or wins nine games.
2) The biggest mistake of the game, and the one that accounted for the final margin, did come from Michigan's passing game, as Jake Rudock threw a very untimely interception that turned into a Pick Six.
The timing was horrible (Michigan was driving to potentially tie the game in the fourth quarter), as was the judgement, but Rudock wasn't helped by being constantly forced into obvious passing down situations all game long. Rudock won the starting job not because he has the highest ceiling or throws the prettiest ball (he missed a few chances to attack Utah deep, and that might not improve), but because he completes a high percentage of his passes and doesn't make dumb mistakes. That wasn't the case last night. I don't know if Jake Rudock is going to win many games for Michigan, but if everybody else does their job just a little bit better, he shouldn't lose too many for them either.
3) I wasn't really sure what to think of Utah before this game, and even after the win, I'm still not sure. I think it's because at their core, Utah is sort of a rich man's Iowa. They're cautious and conservative on offense, maybe even to fault. They don't allow explosive plays on defense. They make safe throws, and they make you screw up just enough to lose to them in a close game. That's effective, and their line knocked Michigan's offensive line around all day. Travis Wilson had a few nice runs, but certainly didn't beat Michigan with his arm. Utah wants to kill you with a thousand papercuts, and Michigan ran out of disinfectant some time in the 4th quarter. This strategy can beat almost anybody in the Pac-12 over a single game.
4) But I'm not sure if Utah has be explosive enough on offense if they're facing a team that can actually score, or if their secondary can handle being tested vertically by an above average QB again and again. Their best offensive player, running back DeVontae Booker, was held to only 3.1 yards a carry over 22 carries, but did have seven catches for 55 yards. Booker is a good (not great) running back, but has excellent hands and awareness, and can hurt you in a few different ways. I don't think he's good enough to be the featured offensive player for a team that wants to win the Pac-12 South, but he's good enough to do what Utah wants to do, and do well.
5) Two players really stood out to me for Michigan. Given Harbaugh's affinity for tight ends in his offense, I think many expected Jake Butt to have a great game, and he certainly did. Eight catches for 93 yards and a really tough grab for a score is a solid day at the offense, and his size and footwork is going to make him a matchup problem for a lot of teams. I don't think there are too many guys on Michigan's roster that Ohio State would really want to trade for or anything, but I bet Butt would be near the top of the list. He should have an excellent season.
6) The other is Jabrill Peppers, who struggled a little bit in the first half, but then came alive in the second. Utah's wideouts were unable to block him, and Peppers found himself in a position to make plays all over the field. There was some chatter that he could end up on offense at some point (I'm more skeptical of that), but you could easily see why he was a five-star recruit. He's fast, he can tackle well, and he could be blowing multiple people up this season.
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Even if Michigan's struggles don't totally dissipate, I have a feeling that this year's showdown in Ann Arbor to end the season is going to be a total war. We'll get an even better idea of what that might look like over the next few weeks.