On Sept. 20th, Utah will make their third trip in school history to the Big House to take on the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference (7-6, 3-5 last season). The teams have split the last two meetings, with Michigan winning 10-7 in 2002 and Utah winning 25-23 in 2008 (en route to a perfect season and a Sugar Bowl victory). It's worth noting that the team that has won each of the previous two meetings has finished the season ranked in the top 10 (Michigan no. 9 in 2002 and Utah no. 2 in 2008). This game will be an early test for both teams, with each team starting conference play the following week. According to Maize n Brew managing editor Josh Henschke, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has seen his seat warm up since his first season when he led Michigan to an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl victory.
Michigan returns seven starters from last year's poor offense. Due to Michigan's struggles offensively last year (86th in total offense at 373.5 yards and 102nd in rushing yards per game at 125.7 yards), offensive coordinator Al Borges was fired and replaced by Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Nussmeier plans to simplify the running game, focusing on inside zone runs. The hope is that a simplified scheme helps Michigan's struggling offensive line. Michigan lost first round draft pick Taylor Lewan (left tackle) and third round draft pick Michael Schofield (right tackle) to the NFL, but they return four offensive linemen with starting experience (tackle Erik Magnuson, center Graham Glasgow, and guards Kyle Bosch and Kyle Kalis). Michigan's offensive line allowed the most tackles for loss (114) last season of any team in the country, and Michigan only averaged 3.28 yards per carry. Michigan also loses their top receiver from last year, Jeremy Gallon (89 receptions, 1,373 yards, and nine touchdowns). The cupboards are not bare for the Michigan offense however. Devin Funchess (WR/TE hybrid) should be a great receiving threat for quarterback Devin Gardner (or Shane Morris if he wins the quarterback job, though Henschke thinks that is unlikely). Henschke believes quarterback will be Michigan's strongest position on offense due to depth and returning experience, with returning starter Gardner (2,960 yards passing, 483 yards rushing, and 32 total touchdowns) and Morris providing depth. Gardner was up and down last year, so it remains to be seen which Devin Gardner will show up this season. Michigan will have to replace last year's leading rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint, but it should not be hard for this year's running backs Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith, and Ty Isaac (USC transfer) to improve on Toussaint's 3.5 yards per carry. I believe with Nussmeier's new system, Michigan's offensive line will improve, allowing Gardner more time to throw and helping to improve the rushing attack.
Eight starters return from last season's no. 41 defense. The linebackers should be the strongest unit on defense according to Henschke. They have a lot of talent, led by Jake Ryan, who switched to middle linebacker, in addition to solid depth. Michigan should have the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Michigan should also be very talented in the secondary with Blake Countess (first team All-Big Ten Conference) and last year's top cornerback recruit, Jabrill Peppers. This is a group that should improve this year. The defensive line is the biggest question for the Michigan defense. Henschke stated that the defensive line has not gotten enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the group is led by talented defensive end Frank Clark (second team All-Big Ten Conference), who could have a breakout season this year. Michigan and Utah were similar last year in that in many games the defense was forced to carry a struggling offense.
This is a game I do not predict Utah to win, but I think it will be a close, hard fought game. Utah is 0-3 in their first game outside the state of Utah since joining the Pac-12, and Michigan is 19-2 at home under Brady Hoke (only losses were Nebraska and Ohio State last year). This game is going to come down to which team's offense plays better. Michigan has talent at quarterback and receiver, but the question is the offensive line. Utah also has talent on offense, but they will be facing a good Michigan defense and running a new offense. A key match up will be Utah's pass rush versus Michigan's offensive line. I think that Utah's pass rush may not be in full form yet because of the losses of Trevor Reilly, Tenny Palepoi, and Jacoby Hale, and Michigan's offensive line will be better. There were offensive lines Utah should have dominated last year (Oregon State comes to mind) that they did not, so I worry this could happen against Michigan. The other key match up is the Utah passing game against Michigan's back seven. Can the receivers get separation and catch the ball, and can Wilson (or whoever starts at quarterback) limit turnovers? I expect this game to be a defensive struggle with Michigan winning 17-13.
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