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Utah Football: Grading the Win Over Michigan

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Game one is in the books. How did the Utes do during their season opening win?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Harbus, Harbros, and Har-mania have come and gone from Salt Lake City. What is left is a 24-17 victory over one of the most esteemed programs in the nation. Utah turned in a balanced performance, with a few standout performances, and a few micsues to be cleaned up. Without further hesitation, let's look at how the team did, who impressed, and what needs to be worked on moving forward.

Offense

The Good: Travis Wilson was the surprise player of the game, taking over on offense after the Michigan front seven managed to stifle Booker throughout the first half. Despite not throwing for any touchdowns, Wilson was able to move the ball effectively through the air and didn't make any glaring mistakes. He also rushed for a touchdown, reading the defense perfectly on an option keeper to put the Utes up two touchdowns in the second half. True freshman Britain Covey played like a seasoned veteran in the slot receiver position, leading the team in receiving with 58 yards on 5 catches for an average of 11.6 yards per catch. Devontae Booker was able to be effective out of the backfield receiving when he couldn't find any room to run early on, finishing with 7 receptions for 55 yards.

The Bad: The offensive line couldn't keep Michigan's defensive line out of the backfield, which didn't allow Booker to find much space to run early in the game. Things opened up later on in the 3rd and 4th quarter, as Booker finished with 69 yards rushing and a touchdown on 22 carries. Booker's ability to run the ball is vital to the offense, and the run blocking will need to improve for Utah to have the success they are hoping for this season. The worst news for the offense, was the injury to Evan Moeai which occured on the first drive of the game, when he appeared to plant his foot awkwardly and injure his leg. This comes after Moeai tore his meniscus and fractured his tibial plateau in last season's opener.

Overall Grade: B

Defense

The Good: The run defense was superb, limiting starting Michigan tailback De'Veon Smith to just 47 yards on 17 carries, and Michigan as a team to only 76 yards on 29 carries, a 2.6 yard per carry average. There was also the big 4th and 1 stop in the fourth quarter by Gionni Paul that all but sealed the win for the Utes. The secondary also recorded three interceptions, matching the number they had against Michigan a year ago. Justin Thomas had the most memorable interception with his pick six, which also happened to be the first interception of his career.

The Bad: Gionni Paul is a great player and Utah is very fortunate to have him as part of the linebacking corps. That being said, he had two personal foul penalties, which a senior team captain should not be getting. The first didn't end up hurting the Utes too much, but his second, a late hit on Jake Rudock out of bounds, made the game a lot more interesting. Up 17-3, with Rudock running out of bounds well short of the sticks, the Utes were in good position to close out the game early. Instead, the refs threw a flag on Paul's hit, extending Michigan's drive. The very next play, Rudock found Jake Butt in the endzone with a great pass, to bring the Wolverines within a touchdown. Extending opposing team's drives with personal foul penalties is something that will come back to haunt the Utes if they don't get it cleaned up.

The absence of a pass rush was also painfully obvious. Just a season removed from #SackLakeCity, Utah recorded no sacks. Utah never had fewer than 2 sacks in a game last season. You have to go back to November 23rd, 2013 when the Utes played Washington State in Pullman, to find a game where the defense did not record a single sack.

Overall Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Good: Covey got his first look as a punt returner, finishing with one return for 14 yards, making a Michigan player miss before being tackled. Covey looked very comfortable for a true freshman and with his overall performance tonight, he gave reason to be hopeful about the return game. There was no chance for any kickoff returns, so we'll have to wait another week to evalute there. Phillips was 3/3 on extra points and knocked in a 30 yard field goal to begin the scoring. Tom Hackett had four punts for 192 yards and a 48 yard average.

The Bad: Phillips missed two field goals, both from 40+ yards pushing one wide right and pulling the other left. A very uncharacteristic performance for the man they call "Automatic Andy". Hackett had a late game punt get called as a touchback, however when reviewing the replay, it appeared the ball never crossed over the end zone, a tough break for the reigning Ray Guy award winner. In coverage, Jabrill Peppers came close to breaking one on a kickoff return before Phillips was able to force him out of bounds.

Overall Grade: C

Coaching

The Good: It was clear early on in the game that Booker was going to have a hard tome finding running room against Michigan's front seven. Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding did a good job of finding other ways to use Booker out of the backfield as a receiver, as well as designing outside running plays that gave him a little more space to work with. Screen passes to Covey and Bubba Poole seemed to spread the defense out a little and the utilization of Travis Wilson as a dual threat quarterback provided enough offense for Utah to lead the game wire to wire.

On defense, the Utes swarmed to the ball all night giving Michigan nothing in the running game. The strategy seemed to be stop the run and make Michigan beat Utah with their quarterback, which worked to perfection as Rudock overthrew receivers on multiple occasions along with tossing three picks.

The Bad: There weren't any obvious coaching blunders in this game, though I would have liked to see the offense take a few more shots down the field to stretch the defense vertically. Defensively, the coaching staff needs to figure out a way to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. Playing in the Pac-12, Utah will face plenty of quarterbacks better than Jake Rudock. If Cody Kessler and Jared Goff are given the same time in the pocket Rudock was afforded, they will pick the secondary apart.

Overall Grade: A-

Utah had very strong performance for an opening game, against a high profile opponent on national television. Utah came across as a veteran, well coached team with very few weaknesses, and balanced across the board. The offense isn't going to set the world on fire, but Michigan is one of the better defenses they will face this year. If Booker can get going like he did last season and Travis Wilson can continue playing the way he did Thursday night, the offense should be able to put enough points on the board to give Utah a chance to win every game they play. Defensively, the team looked rock solid with the exception of the pass rush. The defense will need someone to step up and fill the shoes of Nate Orchard in the pass happy Pac-12. Overall it was an impressive showing by the Utes and there were plenty of good things to build upon moving forward throughout the season.