Jim Harbaugh has been the center of attention in college football since he left the NFL to take over Michigan last December. On Thursday night, he coached the Wolverines for the first time. The game didn’t live up to the considerable hype that preceded it, but Michigan pushed Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium before ultimately falling 24–17. Here are three thoughts on the game:
1. What cupcake?
The magazine Popular Mechanics recently described Michigan’s season opener as a “cupcake game.” Anyone who watched Utah play last season knew that wasn’t the case, but the Utes used the description as bulletin board material and made it look particularly foolish on Thursday night. Far from a cupcake for Michigan to munch on to open Harbaugh’s reign, the Utes outplayed the Wolverines in one of the most highly-anticipated contests in program history. Utah stymied the Wolverines’ offense while getting a series of timely plays from their own QB, Travis Wilson, to complete an impressive win in Salt Lake City.
The Utes stifled Michigan at the line of scrimmage and never let new Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock get comfortable under center. The Iowa transfer misplaced a number of throws, and the Utes corralled three of his errant lobs. The final interception, a 55-yard pick-six courtesy of nickelback Justin Thomas, effectively sealed the game. While Michigan did well to slow Utah’s offense (more on that below), the Wolverines’ offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
In the days leading into the game, Utah players did not conceal their resentment over the excessive attention devoted to Harbaugh and Michigan. Wilson (who recorded 261 total yards and two touchdowns) and company made clear that they shouldn’t have been overlooked and celebrated appropriately afterward.
2. Michigan has a chance to field an elite defense
It may have been difficult to notice given the amount of scrutiny heaped on former coach Brady Hoke throughout last season, but Michigan fielded one of the better defenses in the country in 2014. The Wolverines ranked second in the Big Ten in yards allowed per play and finished 18th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive S&P+ Ratings. The hope entering 2015 was that Michigan’s strong defensive play would continue under new coordinator D.J. Durkin.
The sample size is small, but the Wolverines do appear capable of trotting out another stingy unit this season. Michigan consistently won battles at the line of scrimmage and disrupted Utah’s plays in the backfield. Devontae Booker found open space on a few occasions and finished with 124 total yards, but Michigan did a good job filling running lanes and preventing the standout Utes tailback from breaking big plays on the ground. Holding a player with legitimate Heisman aspirations to 69 yards on 22 carries is a definite win.
The Wolverines struggled during certain stretches to deal with Utes quarterback Travis Wilson’s mobility; seemingly the entire front seven appeared caught off guard at times by his ability to tuck the ball away and dash upfield. Still, Durkin’s charges left a strong first impression, albeit against an offense that rated near the bottom of the Pac-12 last season.
3. Michigan’s quarterback situation remains unsettled
One of the biggest questions facing Michigan this off-season was who would be the team’s starting quarterback. After one game, it doesn’t seem the Wolverines have found a long-term starter at the position. That’s a problem. Rudock struggled when asked to make anything beyond simple to moderately difficult throws. In the first half alone, he launched passes past speedy wideout Jehu Chesson on two would-be touchdowns and also tossed two interceptions. The fourth quarter included an even more costly gaffe: Thomas picked off one of Rudock’s passes and ran it back for the aforementioned score.
Rudock comfortably completed many short and intermediate throws—tight end Jake Butt was a particularly effective target—but an inability to consistently connect on big plays further dragged down an offense whose line struggled to generate a push up front (the Wolverines finished with 2.6 yards per carry). The biggest throw Rudock made, on a third-quarter touchdown to Butt, was straight into triple coverage and easily could have been picked off. He also, though, orchestrated an impressive, no-huddle scoring drive to make things interesting late in the fourth quarter.
Still, after months observing Rudock compete with Shane Morris and others for the starting job in practice, perhaps Harbaugh and his coaching staff should reconsider who leads the first-team offense next week against Oregon State. There was no shortage of Twitter users urging for a Morris substitution throughout the game. Harbaugh anointed the junior the leader of the quarterback competition in April, and Morris was listed next to Rudock with an “OR” on the depth chart released this week. Will Harbaugh give Rudock more time to solidify, or surrender, his hold on the starting job, or turn to Morris sooner rather than later?