Jim Harbaugh’s first opponent is definitely no ‘cupcake.’ Utah marched right into Ann Arbor last year and delivered a whooping to Brady Hoke’s boys. Last year, no one really knew what to expect from the Utes. This year, I guarantee they will not be overlooked. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is no stranger to playing powerhouse opponents. His teams are confident, tough and talented.
Rushing Offense Against Utah
The Utah Utes may have a new defensive coordinator this year, but I think he will be smart enough to realize he doesn’t need to change much for this unit to be successful. John Pease takes over a defense that was highly successful last season as they held Michigan to 118 yards rushing and zero offensive touchdowns.
The front seven of the Utes have a couple studs that will work together to try and keep the rushing totals low and force the Wolverines to beat them through the air. Linebacker, Jared Norris, returns to a defense where he was 3rd in the conference in tackles to go along with defensive end, Hunter Dimick, who had 14.5 tackles for loss last season. Expect both of them to continue their dominance and make things hard for the Michigan backs.
Running back, Derrick Green, received a bulk of the carries in last year’s game (14 carries, 59 yards), averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Deveon Smith was the next back in line, carrying four times for five yards. This season, Michigan adds bruising USC transfer Ty Isaac to the mix at running back. Expect all three to receive carries early in the game. Michigan coaches are hoping one of these highly touted backs breaks through and shoulders the run game for the Wolverines. Newly voted captain and fullback, Joe Kerridge, will be huge in this one. He will be relied on heavily to get to the 2nd level and keep linebackers from making plays on Michigan’s running backs. After tearing an ACL late in the 2014 season against Ohio State, no word on whether Drake Johnson will be cleared for full contact this early in the season.
The offensive line is yet to be determined. Michigan has several four and five star lineman who have not lived up to the hype so far. According to Kyle Kalis, the o-line is learning things that they just didn’t know how to do before- so there’s that. Expect a confident and tough offensive line to show up Thursday night and compete. Harbaugh will not accept anything less than 110% effort. If someone isn’t giving him that, expect a quick hook, as he looks to solidify a unit that heavily struggled last season against every team- no really, every team.
Even though Michigan has higher recruited guys on paper, Utah has experience and confidence. We cannot say the same just yet about a Michigan team coming off a less than average season in which they were dominated up front against a pretty similar and now older Utah Utes front 7.
Passing Offense Against Utah
Here’s where Utah might have some issues. Defensive back, Dominique Hatfield, would have been the leader of this group had he not been disciplined over the summer (named in a robbery case). His status with the team is currently up in the air. Utah also lost arguably its best defensive back, Eric Rowe, who is now patrolling the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backfield. That leaves Tevin Carter as the only returning starter. He returns for his 6th year after being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. Carter was one of three players that intercepted a pass against the Wolverines in last year’s match up from the safety position.
Juniors Brian Allen and Reggie Porter are slated to start on the corners. Both had their seasons cut short last year due to injury. Justin Thomas will also be in the mix, as he led the team with seven pass break ups last season. Expect pressure from the front seven mentioned above, including Dimick, who lead the team with 10 sacks. Sophomore Lowell Lotulelei was a freshman All-American, finishing with four sacks. Utah led the country with an astonishing 55 sacks.
Quarterback, Shane Morris, played in this game last year and was 4-13 for 42 yards to go along with an interception. Jake Rudock is the new guy in town and claims to “treat the ball like gold” when given the opportunity. That may be just what this team needs, as Michigan has struggled with turnovers from the quarterback position the last few years. I expect to see both quarterbacks play improved after spending their off-season with Harbaugh and Jedd Fisch (passing game coordinator/QB-WR coach).
Who will step up and be the pass catching offensive threat? This is an equally concerning question for Wolverine fans as we enter the season in the dark. Rumblings out of camp have given high praise to redshirt freshman Drake Harris. Even though Harris has yet to take a snap for Michigan, he seems to be the go-to receiver at this stage of the season- and that’s a little scary.
The Brady Hoke regime recruited plenty of receivers over the years, but none have seemed to take the top off of an opposing defense. While possession receivers have their place in the game, you can never have enough athletes with great hands and track speed. Harris is that kind of athlete, if he can stay healthy. Juniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are the most experienced wide receivers, but have yet to really shine on the field. True freshman Grant Perry has also earned some praise coming out of fall camp, expect him to contribute at some point in the game.
Let’s hope Kalis was also referring to pass blocking when he stated the o-line was learning things they didn’t know before. Pass blocking is another area that could really use some improvements.
With both teams having uncertainties, I’ll take the wait and see approach. Neither team really possesses a huge threat in this area. They are both unproven and untested, but you can’t overlook Utah’s nation leading 55 sacks
Rushing Defense Against Utah
Remember this name, Devonte Booker. Utah’s best offensive weapon went for a little over 1,500 yards (116 ypg) and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season. Expect to hear his name called several times Thursday night. Some classify Booker as the best back in the Pac-12 and a potential dark horse for the Heisman trophy. He is a shifty back with home run speed you can’t teach. If he gets loose, it could be a long night for the Wolverines. Expect a heavy dose of Booker as he shoots for 2,000 yards this season.
The Utes quarterbacks are no slouch on the ground either. Both Travis Wilson and Kendall Thompson are mobile and can get first downs with their feet.
Utah’s offense will start former defensive lineman, Sam Tevi, at left tackle. The rest of the offensive line has experience, but could be the loophole Michigan takes advantage of.
Considered the strongest position on the team, the defensive line takes the field without tackle Bryan Mone (due to lower body injury). Mone was the perfect player to occupy multiple blockers and plug holes. Although the Mone injury hurts, the position is deep, and they will plug and play. Chris Wormley, Willie Earl Henry, Maurice Hurst, Matthew Godin, and walk on Ryan Glasgow are all more than serviceable and able to make plays in the Utah backfield. Mario Ojemudia and Royce Jenkins-Stone were both highly sought after recruits (both should have redshirted) and the coaching change might be just what these players need to kick start their senior seasons.
The linebacker position is arguably the most experienced position on the team. Captain Joe Bolden, James Ross, and Desmond Morgan are all in their final year of manning the line backing corps for the Wolverines. With multiple years of starting experience, expect these guys to rack up the tackles, if the defensive line can do their job.
The Wolverines possess the knowledge and experience needed to lock down Utah’s rushing attack, IF they do their job. Although they are learning a new defense, expect the front 7 to be the strongest unit in 2015.
Passing Defense Against Utah
Don’t be surprised if you see two quarterbacks take snaps for Utah in the opener. Travis Wilson has been named the starter, but Kendall Thompson is waiting for the opportunity to step in and prove he belongs on the field. Wilson has been a starter since midway through his freshman season, giving him loads of experience. Last season, he looked like a man amongst boys against Michigan going 14 for 20 with 172 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game with an injury. It was as if he was just playing catch with his receivers all day. Thompson has more than enough experience and talent to come in and make plays with his arm and legs.
Utah is replacing both of their starting wide receivers. This is something Michigan should be able to capitalize on, as they have talent and experience oozing out of the defensive backfield. Utah leading receiver, Kenny Scott (48 receptions), returns to a very slim Utah receiver group. Look for Devonte Booker to leak out of the backfield and play a part in the passing game, as well. Booker had 43 receptions last season.
Jabrill Peppers will make his season debut as the starting strong safety, but expect to also see him in the nickel corner role. Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling are expected to man the corners with senior Jarrod Wilson returning as the most experienced defensive back at free safety. I expect two to three interceptions in this game and at least one coming from this group of players.
The defensive line will infiltrate a shaky Utah offensive line enough times to force Wilson into a few bad decisions. The defensive backs will benefit from these mistakes and make plays on the ball.
With Utah’s offensive line and receivers both being questionable, Michigan takes advantage and makes game changing plays on defense.
Don’t kid yourself here, Utah’s special teams are top notch and could very well be the difference in this game. Kicker Andy Phillips (1st team All-Pac 12) is superb, connecting on 23 of 28 field goals last season. He beat Michigan by himself last year- not a joke. Phillips went four for five on field goals with a long of 50 yards. He accounted for 14 points, if you include the extra points. Michigan scored 10 points, six of them coming from defensive lineman, Willie Henry.
Punter, Tom Hackett, could be the best in the country. Let’s hope he out kicks his coverage and allows for Peppers the room (like he needs it) to take one to the house.
Michigan is still sorting out their kicking situation and could start the season kicking and punting by committee, though they look to have two talented punters in Weber State transfer Blake O’Neill and walk-on Kenny Allen. But that doesn’t do you too good when you have to put the ball through the uprights.
The kicking game is important and could be the reason Michigan wins or loses this game.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Utah 30
Whittingham goes for two at the end of the 4th quarter, but the gamble doesn’t pay off. Michigan gets away with a close victory. Commence national freak out of Michigan being “back”.
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