Who: 2-0 Utah Utes
Time: 3:30 ET (ESPN2/ABC)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 20
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, Mich.
A week after Michigan handled Miami (OH) in a game that was far less close than the score may have indicated, the Wolverines are faced with their second non-tomato can opponent of the nonconference slate.
Whether the Miami game inspired confidence or doubt is up to the individual fan's perspective, I suppose. On the one hand, there was no reason for Michigan to be tied with that team well into the second quarter. On the other hand, a couple of unfortunate bounces separated Michigan from the somewhat underwhelming yet breezy win that it was and a more authoritative victory. In the end, however, it wasn't 2013 Toledo or Air Force, which is a small improvement.
Even more importantly, while Michigan's running game still cannot be deemed a strength, the backs have produced far more than last year's bunch to this point -- and, three games into the season, it probably goes without reminder that the 2014 offensive line is without 2013's two NFL draft pick bookends. The ground game will likely struggle against defenses with a pulse; luckily for Michigan, they play in the Big Ten.
On the not so bright side, Utah just might be one of those teams with a pulse. It's still too early to say, as the Utes have only played twice thus far, beating bad Idaho State and Fresno State teams by a combined score of 115-41.
After that 13-0 2013 season for the Utes -- kicked off by a 2-point win in the Big House in the first game of the Rich Rodriguez era -- they put up back-to-back 10-3 years. After joining the PAC 12 in 2011, however, things haven't been quite as steady. In the past three years, Kyle Whittingham's squad has gone 8-5, 5-7 and 5-7.
Is this the year they bounce back into the vast field of bowl eligible squads? Early returns say yes. Of course, Michigan and Michigan fans are more concerned with whether or not they're good enough to beat Michigan again on a Saturday afternoon in the Big House.
When Michigan has the ball
Again, it's hard to say much about Utah's defense given the level of competition to date. Utah does have the benefit of an off week heading into this week's game; they'll be rested and ready to play.
Naturally, the No. 1 question is thus: Will Devin Funchess go? As of Wednesday, that was still up in the air. Brady Hoke isn't going to talk about injuries, so we likely won't know until the winged helmets hit the field.
If he does go, then Michigan will once again have its field-stretching, overall terror of a No. 1 target. If not, such is life. Michigan will then have to lean on production from Amara Darboh, who had a nice showing against Miami, and tight end Jake Butt, who looked 100 percent last Saturday, even if he probably isn't just yet (well, physically he just might be, but becoming reacquainted with game speed is a different thing entirely).
Despite the loss of its top two tackles from 2012 (including Star Lotulelei), Utah's interior line more than held its own. Tenny Palepoi did a heck of a Lotulelei impersonation, and little-used LT Tuipulotu and Latu Heimuli combined with freshman Sam Tevi and undersized play-maker Viliseni Fauonuku to form a strong rotation. Only two of those five are back in 2014, however. For the second straight year, there's pretty heavy turnover up front.
At linebacker, the Utes lost leading tackler Trevor Reilly (78.0 tackles, 9.0 sacks), but bring back the next three tacklers in Jason Whittingham, Jared Norris and Jacoby Hale. There were significant losses beyond that, however, in the linebacking corps and the secondary. Bill C., again, take it away:
There's turnover elsewhere on the defense, too. While three of the top four linebackers return, four of the next five do not, which means that it might take only a couple of injuries to dig deep into the well of freshmen and walk-ons. Meanwhile, three of last year's top five defensive backs (and five of the top 10) are gone.
As such, perhaps Michigan is catching the Utes at the right time. But, with this Michigan offense, which is seemingly always teetering on the precipice of an explosion of some sort, good or bad, much of this contest will hinge upon Michigan's ability (or inability) to avoid shooting itself in the foot.
The running game should do okay (which by recent standards might as well mean they'll do magnificently), but Devin Gardner vs. himself will continue to be a running theme. With a turnover margin of -7, Michigan currently ranks 124th nationally in that category.
When the U-M defense is on the field
Michigan clamped down on bad Appalachian State and Miami teams, and got treated to the Everett Golson Show in Week 2. Okay, so what do we have here?
Injuries have muddied the waters somewhat. Additionally, the offense being shutout probably, counterintuitively, made the ND performance from the defensive side look worse than it actually was. Golson will continue to make defenses look silly all season; he is a very good player. While the numbers might have looked different had the game been close, the Wolverines gave up just 280 total yards, plus a paltry 1.7 yards per carry for the Fighting Irish. That's pretty good. When Golson wasn't doing his thing, Michigan's defense looked solid to great; unfortunately, he did his thing quite a bit.
So what does it mean for Utah? Again, injuries to Desmond Morgan, Raymon Taylor and Jarrod Wilson alter the equation a bit. Jabrill Peppers looked excellent against an overmatched Miami squad, and Jourdan Lewis reeled in the first turnover for the defense this season with his first quarter interception.
Standing at 6 feet 7 inches tall, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson has completed 24 of 38 attempts thus far for 446 yards and six touchdowns (to zero interceptions). Again, competition caveats apply, but the junior certainly looks the part.
He bounced back from an incredibly scary sounding "intracranial artery injury," which forced him to miss the last three games of the 2013 season. At that height, you wouldn't think he'd be much of a run threat, but he did manage a long of 17 yards against Fresno State, plus 7.4 yards per carry last season. For what it's worth, he beat out Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson for the starting spot. Bill C. compared him to tennis player Gael Monfils:
One of every 7.5 passes that Travis Wilson threw last year was either a touchdown or an interception. He took a few too many sacks and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He threw three interceptions against Oregon State and six against UCLA, and he still almost led the Utes to wins in both games (and I do mean "led" -- he made almost as many great plays as awful ones). About Monfils, I've written that watching him is like watching your little brother -- you are absolutely thrilled when he wins, and you find yourself saying "Oh no, Gael. No, no. Get it together, Gael," rather frequently. Pretty sure I was saying the same thing during last year's Oregon State game.
Like Gardner, it seems like Wilson can be a little careless at times; nonetheless, he can definitely play.
At tailback, Bubba Poole (BUBBA!) is back; he carried the ball 149 times for 607 yards (4.1 YPC) and two touchdowns last season. At 6'1'' 197 pounds, he's a pretty good-sized back. Paired with Wilson, that is a pretty imposing backfield.
At receiver, 2013's leading pass catcher, the 6-foot-2 Dres Anderson, is back. He reeled in 53 passes for 1,002 yards last season. So far, he's racked up 195 yards and two touchdowns this season (both in the Fresno game). Although Anderson trailed off a bit down the stretch in 2013, he is clearly Utah's best non-QB skill position player. They'll need him to be especially so on Saturday, as the next three most-targeted guys of 2013 are gone.
Up front, the Utes are quite large. Four front five starters tip the scales at 305+ pounds, with left guard Jeremiah Poutasi weighing in at a whopping 320 pounds. Unlike Michigan, three are upperclassmen, with the other two being sophomores.
Now, are they of the "big but lumbering and possibly not great" variety, or the "Wisconsin-esque run for the hills' variety? We'll find out Saturday when the Utes meet their first opponent of substance this season. Either way, this is where you can insert your cliche of choice regarding Michigan defenders needing to get their grit levels up for this one. GRIT. LUNCH PAILS. HARD HATS!
Utah has struggled in the W-L ledger the last couple of seasons; turns out, joining a major conference, let alone a very good one (i.e. not the Big Ten), has a way of knocking a few wins off the schedule.
With that said, I think this might be a good Utah team. 2008 good? No, probably not, although who knows what that team would have done in a major conference.
The sad reality is, if Utah were in the Big Ten, they'd probably do pretty well for themselves. Wilson is an intriguing, albeit at times volatile, quarterback, and Anderson is a very solid receiving option. Defensively, the Utes are always good, even when they're going 5-7. This is not Michigan playing a Utah team in a non-major conference punching well above its weight class; this is a major conference foe coming to the Big House expecting to win, and perhaps not unreasonably so.
If Michigan continues to stop the run and can lock down on Anderson, they can probably coerce Wilson into his first interception of the season; then again, Michigan's defense has forced one turnover thus far, so maybe not.
Offensively, Michigan should have at least moderate success running the ball here and there. As much as I like Darboh, however, Funchess is the most important of the injured Wolverines; if he goes, Michigan should be able to put at least 30 on the board.
In short, this is very easily a game the Wolverines could lose. It's easy to still see "Utah" on the schedule and think victory, but that certainly wasn't the case in 2008 and it almost wasn't the case in a stultifying 10-7 victory in 2002, either.
In the end, I think Michigan will lean on its defense when the offense falters, which it likely will at points, especially if Funchess remains out. I have no real basis for this, but I think the D pitches in its first score of the season in this one. It'll be close, but the Wolverines grind out a win against a team that could probably finish in the top half of the Big Ten.
Michigan 31, Utah 21.