Utah football started the 2015 season with a win over the Michigan Wolverines 24-17 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, spoiling Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh's return to college football. Utah's win was in front of the largest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium history, 47,825, breaking the record set last year for the USC game (47,619) Utah was led by strong performances by quarterback Travis WIlson, running back Devontae Booker, wide receiver Britain Covey, linebacker Gionni Paul, safety Tevin Carter, and cornerback Justin Thomas. The Utah run defense was stout, allowing Michigan to run for only 76 yard on 29 carries (2.6 yards per carry). Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock threw three interceptions.
The atmosphere at the packed stadium certainly helped the Utah football team get the win to start the season.
"I’ve had a couple coaches coming here for the first time telling me how difficult it is to play here. I’m very proud of our fans for being loud. They were fantastic. I think people underestimate our crowd and that helps our team. It was packed and we appreciate the support," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
The Utah offense started off the game strong, driving 63 yards in 10 plays on the first drive of the game, capped off by a 30-yard Andy Phillips field goal. Michigan would drive into Utah territory, but an interception by Cory Butler-Byrd at the Utah 14 yard line would end Michigan's scoring threat. The game would remain scoreless until Michigan capped a 6 play, 29 yard drive with a 29 yard field goal at the beginning of the second quarter. The Utah offense had an immediate answer, driving 75 yards in 11 plays. Covey barely missed his first career collegiate touchdown. Booker would run the ball in on the next play from the 1-yard line. Wilson's lone interception of the game came on a Hail Mary to end the first half. The game would go into halftime with Utah leading 10-3.
Whittingham highlighted the strong play of the true freshman Covey, who led the Utah football team in receiving yards with 5 catches for 58 yards.
"He’s quick, athletic, talented and smart. He has great hands. He’s great in the return game. He will be a big key for us. I think you got a taste of what he can do in the return game this evening. He made the most of it and he is a fierce competitor, above all else. He will play a lot of football for us this year," said Whittingham.
Michigan would miss a 48-yard field goal on their first drive of the second half. On Utah's first drive, they marched down the field, going 74 yards in 10 plays. The drive was capped by a 14-yard touchdown run by Wilson.
Wilson looked sharp in the game. He was poised in the pocket, kept his eyes downfield and ran when the opportunities were there. He was 24-of-33 for 208 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He added 53 yards rushing on 12 carries with one touchdown.
"Travis was very good, efficient. He threw the ball well, about 65 percent. It’s our benchmark this season. He threw for a couple hundred yards and was more than game manager. He did his thing and responded nicely," said Whittingham.
It was tough sledding on the ground for Utah star running back, Devontae Booker, but new offensive coordinators Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick found ways to get Booker the ball. While Booker only had 69 yards on the ground, he also had 55 yards through the air, and was a constant threat to get the ball. The OC's used Booker as an effective decoy with many of the read option plays with Travis Wilson. Wilson was able to capitalize on the attention Booker received, by rushing for 53 of his own yards, including the touchdown scamper of 14 yards.
Utah's defense was really salty, especially on the ground, making the Wolverines one dimensional. Utah held the Michigan rushing attack to only 76 yards, with an average of 2.6 YPR. While the Utes weren't able to get to the quarterback for a sack in the game, they were focused on keeping their gaps and not allowing the Wolverines to establish a rushing attack. Utah's secondary had a nice debut, with the three interceptions, including the pick-6 by Justin Thomas. Thomas's interception essentially put the game away, as Michigan had the ball with a chance to tie, when Thomas jumped a route and took the ball to the end zone from 55 yards out to put the Utes up 24-10.
Tevin Carter was all over the field, and is one of the leaders of the team. Carter had nine tackles on the night, with 1.5 for a loss. Not to be outdone, Utah senior linebacker, Gionni Paul recorded 14 tackles on the night, and was a constantly around the ball. However, Paul did have two crucial personal fouls that extended Michigan drives, one of which brought the Wolverines within a score in the fourth quarter at 17-10. That one was especially painful, due to the fact UM would have been on a 4th and long, and either would have had to punt of kick a field goal, but instead got a TD pass on the next play to make the game a lot tighter than it should have been.
Michigan did pick up 279 yards through the air, but 80 of it was on a fairly meaningless final drive to pull them within a touchdown, before a failed onside kick.
One of Utah's biggest strength's, special teams, wasn't particularly strong in the season opener. The Utes went 1-of-3 on field goals, with Andy Phillips missing two field goals of 48 and 46 yards. It's uncharacteristic for Phillips to miss more than one field goal a game, but he did open up scoring with a 30 yard kick. Tom Hackett had some punting issues in the first quarter, where it appeared the wind knocked down his kicks a bit, and it kept the Utah defense backed up in poor field position. Hackett had a much better second half flipping the field, and had a call go against him on a punt at the end of the game that should have been called down within the 10 yard line, but was called as a touchback.
While the story lines about this game in the national media will focus on Harbaugh and Michigan, it was Utah that got the win to start the season. And they did it in those sweet new satin red helmets, in front of a massive, record setting crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium. What a start to 2015.
Whittingham Post-Game Interview
Players Post-Game Interview, featuring Wilson, Thomas, Covey, Paul, and Booker