As we get closer and closer to the start of the 2016 season for University of Utah Football, we will take a look back at last years game starting with the first game of the season against the University of Michigan.
It was arguably the most anticipated season opener in Utah football history. The Utes were coming off of a 9 win season in 2014, and their first bowl game since the 2011 season. The team returned arguable the best running back in the country, Devontae Booker, a powerful defense, a senior quarterback, and they were welcoming the traditional power Wolverines into Rice-Eccles for the first time. Michigan made the off season hire of the eccentric Jim Harbaugh, whom Utah fans had a special grudge against, since he benched Utah legend Alex Smith in San Francisco while with the 49ers. All eyes were on Rice-Eccles that night, as it was all about Harbaugh and his return to the college game, and little attention was being paid to the Utes. Utah fans and players wanted to make a statement.
While on paper Michigan was the better team on every stat but turnovers, Utah definitely looked the more complete team. The tactical game between Harbaugh and Whittingham was the most entertaining game to begin the season.
Let's break it all down, starting with the quarterbacks. Michigan's Jake Rudock threw for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns. His passing percentage was at 63% not bad for the first game of the season. He played more of a pocket quarterback, as he ran 5 times for 11 yards with his largest gain of 3 yards. Utah's Travis Wilson also put up solid number as well. He had 210 passing yards and no passing touchdown. Comparing both quarterbacks, Wilson was more efficient than Rudock with 73 % completion percentage. He was also able to run the ball more effectively as well, where he was able to run the read-option very effectively all night long, as he's punish Michgian if they made the wrong read. With 51 yards and a rushing touchdown, to go along with his efficiency through the air, Wilson solidified himself as the better quarterback.
The running game is where the game was very one sided and that is all due to the great run defense from Utah. Michigan was held to 76 rushing yards in 29 carries. That averages out to 2.6 yards a carry. The bulk of the running game for Michigan was carried by De'Veon Smith with 17 carries and 47 rushing yards. The big bruising back for the Wolverine had to earn every yard he got, but the yards he did get were impressive. Even when Utah would stand him up in the backfield, he would find a way to grind out a yard or two. The Wolverines had 5 different rushers throughout the game and the defense held them down. The defensive line was crowding the lanes which made it harder for the running backs to get in the gaps and the linebackers were able to stop the run if the running back did make it past the defensive line.
On the Utes side of the running game, they had 127 rushing yards on 37 carries. That averages out to about 3.4 yards a carry, which is almost a yard more per carry than Michigan. Devontae Booker run the bulk of the running duties with 22 carries and 69 yards and a rushing touchdown. Booker was facing one of the best defensive fronts he'd see all season, and was doing his best to pound away to grind out yards. Booker did add another 54 yards through the air, as Utah was making sure to get him the ball in as many ways as possible.
This was also the game where Utah fans were formally introduced to Britain Covey, as he led the Utes with 58 yards on 5 catches, and had moves that made Wolverine stud Jabril Peppers looking lost.
This game was ultimately won by the defense for Utah. They not only held Rudock to 63% passing efficiency and the run game to 76 yards, the defense was able to force more turnovers for the Wolverines. While Wilson did throw 1 interception, while Utah was able to intercept the ball 3 times. The biggest coming in a form of the pick 6 from Justin Thomas, which sealed the game for the Utes. The yards after the interception were more than triple the yards that Michigan had, with 65 total yards.
The flow of the game was very much like a that of a first game. Some disjointed moments, with teams trying to feel themselves, and each other out. Utah really kept Michigan at bay most of the game, as they jumped to a 17-3 lead in the second half, and eventually a 24-10 lead with 7:58 remaining in the game. Utah's defense would have had Michigan stopped a couple of additional times, including before their second to last touchdown, but some stupid defensive penalties kept Michigan in the game, more so than they deserved. Michigan did score with 54 seconds remaining that setup an onside kick, but Utah was in control of this game much of the second half.
The game, statistically was won by the Michigan Wolverines but the real winners was Utah. Handing Coach Harbaugh his first loss after taking over the football team. It was the perfect start to a great season.