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Utes go up early, hold on for win

Entering the game I was fairly pessimistic about Utah's chances and not because I didn't think they could win. I was skeptical because I had yet to see any evidence this team was good enough and consistent enough to win on the road against a BCS team. Well I was wrong, Utah seems to have a different swagger than the past two seasons and even though the game wasn't pretty at times, a victory over Michigan in their house is still a fairly big deal.

I say this because prior to entering the game, Michigan had lost only once to a non-BCS team at home in the past eighteen years. That came last year with their loss to Appalachian State to open the season. So getting a victory in Ann Arbor, even if it is a struggling Michigan team, can't be downplayed. It is a huge moment for this program and should be played up as such, especially if this year turns out to be something to remember.

The Good:

Utah's offense looked incredible in the first half. In fact, it looked nearly as smooth as the offense against Texas A&M in the 2004 opener. Brian Johnson passed extremely well, the line was holding and the receivers were fast. Since Whittingham took over, I don't think the Utes' offense has looked as good as it did in the first two quarters of Saturday's game.

I want to focus on the first part of the game, because I think it shows the difference between this year's team and every other Whittingham has coached. The Utes had held the Wolverines to an early three and out and forced the punt. On the return, however, Jereme Brooks probably got a bit too zealous and forced it up field where he was hit and fumbled. The ball was easily recovered by Michigan and they soon scored.

Open the flood gates?

Had this been 2007 or 2006, most definitely. The Utes had a habit of consistently rolling over when punched in the mouth in most big games. I don't know how many times I watched Utah wilt after going down early and I'll admit, when Michigan scored first, this was the first thing that entered my mind. At that point, I really expected them to collapse and the Wolverines to dominate. It didn't happen, though.

Enter Brian Johnson.

Johnson orchestrated a perfect drive, which really got off the ground when he found Brooks up the middle for a 55-yard gain. With that play, he redeemed himself for the earlier fumble and set up Utah's first score, which came when Corbin Louks rushed to the left for the 8-yard touchdown. Though Utah missed the extra point, you could tell this was a different Utes team and that they were going to give Michigan a run for their money.

Over the next quarter and a half, Utah's offense performed nearly flawlessly, though there were some issues finding the end zone at times. Fortunately, Louie Sakoda has a massive leg, as he had made three field goals in the second quarter, all of Utah's scores until Johnson hit Bradon Godfrey down the middle for the 19-yard touchdown pass to put the Utes up 22-10 at the half.

That's about where the good ends on the offense, but we'll get to the bad in a bit.

Beyond Utah's first half offense, their defense dominated for the entire game. All of Michigan's scores came off Utah mistakes and had those mistakes not happened, the game could have been a blowout for the Utes. However, regardless of all of that, the defense stepped up.

In my preview of the game, I said Michigan's hopes of winning were based on their running game and I stand by that, because they could not get anything on the ground. The Wolverines only had 36 yards rushing and struggled through the air, finishing with only 167 passing yards. Much of this turned out to be because of the inexperience of Michigan's quarterbacks. This was a huge question mark entering the game and they couldn't really perform as well as they needed to.

Nick Sheridan started for the Wolverines and didn't pass too poorly, going 11of 19 for a touchdown and one interception. But he only managed 98-yards through the air, as most of his passes were short and didn't move the chains at all. Because of his lack of down field play and the fact Michigan couldn't really develop sustained drives, Rich Rodriguez replaced him with Steven Threet, who threw for a touchdown and set up another, though both came on a short field. 

The short field for Michigan was the story of the night, though. The Wolverines only managed 11 first downs, 5 less than Utah and were 3 of 14 on 3rd down conversions. Utah's defense held Michigan to only 203 yards on offense, which is why they won.

The Bad:

The offense in the second half did not play well at all. Utah struggled there and because of that, Michigan got back into the game. Luckily the defense stepped up, or the Wolverines very well could have won.

However, I'm not going to get down on the offense. I think Michigan's defense is solid, maybe the best Utah will see all season and it looked like they just wore down Utah's line, which limited what Johnson could really do. Did Andy Ludwig go a bit conservative? Yeah, but not nearly as bad as he has in past seasons, as the Utes looked to be setting up a passing play, but the line would collapse and Michigan would either force Johnson to run, or record the sack (they had 6 on the night).

The good news with here is Utah probably won't see a defense like that for the rest of the regular season. Especially one with as much talent and depth and therefore I don't expect them to wear down as easy. So I'm not going to get too down on the offensive play, because I think it will improve as the season progresses, especially when they face weaker defenses. Of course, I've been wrong before and maybe this is a weakness that will prove to be disastrous later in the season.

Though there are some concerns about the offensive play calling, I don't think that was the worst part of the game. There are two major problems we saw Saturday that could haunt Utah this season if they don't get it under control.

  1. Special teams. They were horrible. Yes, Louie Sakoda had an amazing game, but that doesn't change the fact Utah fumbled on a punt return, bobbled the ball on another, allowed Michigan too many yards on returns/kickoffs and then had one of their punts blocked. That blocked punt let the Wolverines back into it and had it never been blocked, Utah probably wins by a comfortable margin.
  2. Penalties. They killed the team early and made it a far closer game than it should have been. Hopefully they were just early season jitters and Utah cuts down on the penalties as the season progresses, but for Saturday, they were an issue and the difference between a final outcome of maybe 42-10 and what we got.

Overall, though, this was a really solid game by the Utes. It wasn't perfect, but generally first games aren't and the fact Utah won is all that really matters. I expect the Utes to build on this, gain more confidence and not allow the win to go to their head, because looming large is UNLV, who the Utes faced last year after another big victory and we all know how that turned out.

But for now, the Utes should enjoy the win, because it was a really good one for Kyle Whittingham and this program. Will it chart the course for an undefeated season? Who knows, but Utah is 1-0 for the first time since 2005 and most likely looking at a return to the top-25. That is big and could signal Utah football is going to be a force in the Mountain West again.