For the third time in school history, the Utah Utes will travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to take on the Michigan Wolverines at the Big House on Saturday Sept. 20 at 1:30 PM MT on ABC/ESPN2. The teams have split the previous two meeting with Lloyd Carr's Wolverines besting Ron McBride's Utes in 2002 10-7. Kyle Whittingham's Utes returned the favor to Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines winning 25-23 in 2008. Both victorious teams finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll (2002 Michigan finished no. 9 and the 2008 Utah team ended with the school's highest final ranking at no. 2).
Utah (2-0) brings their high powered offense (57.5 points per game, ranking third in the nation) led by junior quarterback Travis Wilson against a stout Michigan (2-1) defense (18.3 points allowed per game, 29th). Wilson is second in the nation in pass efficiency (213.9). He is one of only six quarterbacks in the nation with at least six passing touchdowns and no interceptions. In two games (playing only a half in one and a little over a half in the other), Wilson has thrown for 446 yards (63.2 completion percentage), six touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He has also added 49 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown.
Michigan senior quarterback Devin Gardner will be facing a Utah front seven that leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and tackles for loss per game (10.5). Michigan's offensive line will have to step up to protect Gardner from Utah pass rushers like defensive end Hunter Dimick, defensive tackle Clint Shepard, and defensive end/linebacker Nate Orchard. Utah also gets linebacker Gionni Paul back from a foot injury suffered during spring camp. The Utah front seven will also need to be ready to handle Michigan's power rushing attack (242.0 yards per game, 29th), led by running backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith.
Utah was on a bye last week while Michigan defeated the Miami (OH) Redhawks 34-10 in Ann Arbor. Utah last faced the Fresno State Bulldogs at Rice-Eccles Stadium, defeating them 59-27 on Sept. 6. The Utes silenced a lot of critics with the strong performance against Fresno State (allowing only 55 rushing yards) after allowing 179 rushing yards to the lowly Idaho State Bengals in week one. Stopping the run will be key if the Utes want to leave the Big House with a win since Michigan's offensive philosophy is to pound the football right into the heart of the defensive line.
"The style of football [Michigan head coach Brady Hoke] likes is tough, hard-nosed, blue collar, and that's what he preaches and what he's all about. And you can see that in the play of Michigan," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Whittingham and Hoke have faced each other when both coached in the Mountain West in 2009 and 2010. (During that period, Hoke was the head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs.) Whittingham's Utes won both match-ups, but the Utes head coach doesn't believe that having faced Hoke previously will offer the Utes any advantages this Saturday.
"It's a non-factor," Whittingham said. "Coaches evolve, their schemes change. The players are all different, obviously, and so I don't think that's in the equation for them or us."
Michigan's Gardner will be looking to return to his week one form when he completed 13 of 14 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a 52-14 win over Appalachian State. Gardner has struggled with turnovers in the last two games, throwing four interceptions and losing one fumble. He faces a Utah defense that has only forced one turnover in two games, on a ball that was snapped over Fresno State quarterback Brandon Connette's head. The Wolverines' defense has also only forced one turnover on the season. Turnovers will likely be key in deciding this football game, so whichever team records their second could put their team in good position to win.
If 6-5, 230-pound Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess is able to play after suffering a lower leg injury late in the game against Notre Dame, he will create problems for the Utah secondary. The injury was severe enough to force him to miss the Miami (OH) game, yet he leads the team in receptions (16), yards (202), and touchdowns (3), while only appearing in two of Michigan's three games. Michigan will move Funchess all around the field, so always knowing where he is will be key to Utah's efforts in trying to stop him. Hoke will not comment on injuries, so it is unknown whether Funchess will play or not, but if he does, he could have a big impact on the game.
Utah has weapons of their own at wide receiver, as well, to cause havoc against the shaky Michigan secondary. Senior wideout Dres Anderson had over 1,000 yards receiving last season and has already amassed 195 yards receiving on only seven receptions with two touchdowns. Fellow receiver Kenneth Scott has added 134 receiving yards on 10 receptions with three touchdowns. Kaelin Clay has been a terror on special teams with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 46-yard punt return against Idaho State in week one. Tight end Westlee Tonga has proven to be a threat in the receiving game as well with six receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan may be the winningest program in college football history, but that tradition does not matter to the Utes.
"The tradition is great. We're taking nothing away from Michigan's tradition, but we're not playing Michigan's tradition, and the stripes on their helmet. We're playing those 11 guys, and that's all our focus is, those 11 guys on the field," said Whittingham.
Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1)
Saturday, 1:30 PM MT
TV: ABC or ESPN2
Listen to us chat about the Utah @ Michigan matchup with Maize n Brew!