After 242 days and change of waiting, Jim Harbaugh will take the field Thursday night for his first game as Michigan's head coach. It's debatable who couldn't stand the wait more: Harbaugh himself or the legion of Michigan fans ready to welcome their new khaki-based overlord. The Maize n Brew crew returns to ponder how Michigan's opening game will go in Salt Lake City and share in that blissful feeling knowing that college football is back.
How do we expect the Wolverines to start up early in the game?
Drew: Rice-Eccles Stadium is not an imposing structure, sitting with a capacity of only 45,017, which is not even half of the capacity of many Big Ten football stadiums. However, Utah fans think that this will be the most-attended game played at Rice-Eccles Stadium since it opened in 1998. It will be packed, and, when it’s like that, it can be electric. So I envision that one of two extremes will happen when Michigan and Utah kick off: either the Wolverines start fired up with a quick touchdown or big stop and suck the air out of the stadium; or the Utes do the same. If the Utes do it, Rice-Eccles Stadium will erupt, and I fear how the Wolverines, who have been notoriously poor in true road games in recent seasons, will respond to that pressure in such a hostile environment.
Anthony: The ideal situation would be that they come out unrattled and unphased by the atmosphere, but this will be a team that probably struggles a little bit early on. Their goal for the early part of this game would be that they survive the moment and do not dig themselves any huge holes to come back from. I’m not sure this Michigan team is built to come back from a sizable deficit, so to stay with the Utes until the nerves calm down is a big key for them if they are to win this one on the road, which is something they have struggled with in recent years.
KB: Think of it this way: everyone will be focused on Harbaugh. The players are almost an afterthought in the lead-up to this game, so what do they have to prove? They've bought into the new staff teaching them things they never learned before, so I think we'll see guys flying around the field. If they avoid a dreaded special teams mishap in the opening moments of the game, I say strap in for a great game.
Amanda: My hope is that Michigan leaves the hype and khaki cam and Harbaugh busses (Harbus?) behind them and focuses on the task at hand: winning the game. Focus is the key to this game, hands down. I expect slight nerves for the first series or two, being that it’s opening weekend and a night game in the opponent’s stadium. A huge play at the beginning of the game for the Wolverines would be key in calming the nerves, however I am hesitant to predict such a thing. Holding the Utes early on, stopping them in third down situations, and preventing big plays will be key to not only avoid digging themselves into a hole early on, but to also boost the confidence of the young/new players.
Zach: Salt Lake City is more than just ski resorts and Karl Malone. It’s home to one of the electric and hyped stadiums in the country. The Utah Utes community will be an unhinged crowd on the opening kick off. Why? Because the thought of dethroning the all-mighty Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines on national television is enough for Rice-Eccles Stadium to be hostile. I expect Utah to come off firing on all cylinders, especially on running back Devontae Booker and quarterback Travis Wilson’s first possession on offense.
Will Michigan’s starting quarterback be decided during this game or show that it is still ongoing?
Drew: It’s been decided. Jim Harbaugh can use all of the "OR"s he desires on the depth chart, but it will not disguise that Jake Rudock has beaten Shane Morris in this quarterback competition. Rudock has what Harbaugh is looking for in his quarterback this season -- someone who can move the chains and not turn over the football -- and Rudock has practiced well enough in fall camp to earn the job. The only way that this quarterback competition reopens is if Rudock plays awful in the first half against Utah, and Harbaugh has no choice but to give Morris a chance to salvage it. However, because I’d be shocked if Rudock struggled to that extent, it’ll remain closed.
Anthony: I think that Rudock will show enough on Thursday to be Michigan’s starting quarterback for this season. He is a known commodity at that position. He is not going to wow you with his arm, but he is steady enough to move the chains and limit turnovers, something sorely lacking from the offense the last few seasons. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Morris will see action in this game unless there is a blowout on either side.
KB: All of the observers of what few open practices there were reported that Rudock was far and away the better player. His play style favors an opening road game too, because we know he doesn't turn the ball over and is efficient with his throws. All the Michigan faithful recall the last time Shane Morris started a road game too, and it did not go well. Harbaugh says it could be either, but he knows which guy sits atop that depth chart. Rudock is better-equipped for this system, so go with the guy who gives the team the best chance to win.
Amanda: Harbaugh knows who the starting QB will be and has notified the players of his decision. However, I do believe that we will see several players early on in the game, including more than one QB. While I think that Rudock will ultimately be Harbaugh’s guy going forward into the season, I will not rule out him playing Morris a little in this game as well. Both are very different QBs with different styles of play, and I think the coaching staff is eager to see which one excels under the lights with the pressure of an actual game.
Zach: It’s Jake Rudock. The king of checkdowns. The former Iowa quarterback who led Iowa to a second place finish in the Legends Division in 2013. Rudock came to Michigan for the opportunity to start, and considering that Shane Morris, who has yet to throw a touchdown in his collegiate career, is his only legitimate competition in camp, it’s Rudock job to lose. If Morris plays a down on Thursday, something went horribly wrong.
What will the Wolverines have the toughest time against with the Utes?
Drew: Last season, it was covering punt returns with 10 men. This season, it will be protecting Jake Rudock, er, excuse me, Michigan’s starting quarterback from Utah’s pass rush. The Utes had a terrifying pass rush last season. Led by Nate Orchard, they were first in the nation in sacks per game by a significant margin and sack rate on passing downs. Utah’s pass rush was like a kamikaze swarm, and, even though Orchard now is in the NFL, the Utes have more than enough leftover pieces on the defensive line for that pass rush to be devastating again -- hello, Hunter Dimick! This will be a huge test for a Michigan offensive line that has been the brunt of criticism for the past two seasons. If the line can pass this test, optimism will sky through the roof for this year.
Anthony: The biggest challenge in my eyes is the pass rush. Many people say it will be stopping Devontae Booker, which will be a test in its own right, but it is going to be a baptism by fire of sorts for U-M’s improved offensive line. Mason Cole held his own last season against guys like Shilique Calhoun and Joey Bosa, so we will see if he can do the same to Hunter Dimick and company on Thursday night.
KB: This will be a good test for Tyrone Wheatley's reworked running back corps. Utah is fast up front but doesn't have as much experience in the secondary. De'veon Smith and Derrick Green will be challenged to find holes, which was their weakness last year. All along we thought it was the offensive line, but I think they just didn't know how to find open field. Ty Isaac probably won't appear until the home opener unless the running game is a dumpster fire during this game and Wheatley and Drevno want to get creative.
Amanda: I’m going to have to agree with Drew on this one and say the matchup of our o-line versus the pass rushers of the Utes will be the toughest task for Michigan. The Utes were 1st last season in QB sacks, with 55. Combine that with a lackluster offensive line the past few seasons, and this may prove to be an issue for this game. Although the o-line for Michigan improved remarkably last year from 2013, allowing 43 fewer TFL and 10 fewer sacks, the numbers they boasted were still average. It will be interesting to see how Drevno & company handle this matchup during the game.
Zach: Devontae Booker is a good running back. Arguably one of the top ball carriers in the country. Booker finished with 1,512 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on 292 carries last season, while also rushing for over 100 yards in six games. I like Utah’s ground-and-pound scheme over Michigan’s front seven, regardless if Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan and James Ross are all starting at linebacker. Their defensive line is questionable and will be thrown into the fire early.
Which Wolverine do you think will have a breakout performance against the Utah?
Drew: Delano Hill. This isn’t to suggest that he will be the best player on Michigan’s defense, but I think he will be someone who hasn’t accomplished much in the past but puts people on notice on Thursday. Why? Well, the bubbles that leaked out of the submarine during fall camp -- and before in the spring and summer -- had glowing remarks about Hill’s play. He won’t be one of Michigan’s top two safeties -- that honor belongs to Jarrod Wilson and Jabrill Peppers -- which means he’ll be used in nickel packages. But, because Utah likes to spread the field with three and four wide, Michigan will be in its nickel package almost exclusively tomorrow. Therefore, Hill will see lots of time on the field, and I think he will demonstrate why he’s drawn such rave reviews.
Anthony: Drake Harris. I’m not sure the type of numbers that he will put up, but I think he has the chance to be a standout at wide receiver in a group that is rather pedestrian otherwise where we stand today. If his hamstring holds up, this is a guy that has the ability to take the top off of the defense, which is a trait I’m not sure any of the other guys share just yet. Maybe I’m just drinking the kool-aid, but I really do buy the hype with him, especially when Harbaugh perks up at the mention of his name.
KB: I think Harbaugh has been keeping it close to the chest with Drake Harris's health. If he gets put into the game, look out. I'm also hopeful for Jourdan Lewis to make some noise in the secondary. We'll also know what kind of game it's going to be based on how quickly Jake Butt makes his presence known.
Amanda: Grant Perry. I’ve been hearing buzz from the Michigan camps that the wide receiver from Brother Rice has been standing out as of late. I researched him a few weeks ago for an incoming freshman profile, and after watching several highlight reels, let me tell you: he has an astute ability to get open. At the very least, he’ll annoy defenders. Absolutely explosive his senior season, I expect Perry to play with a slight chip on his shoulder with doubters dubbing him "too small" or "not quick enough." While Perry may not be the big play guy, I can see him utilized in third-down situations. Though I see Chesson and Darboh being primarily featured in Thursday’s matchup, as I said earlier I think we will see many players from each position, including Perry.
Zach: Jake Rudock. I know that’s not very exciting to say, but I do believe the transfer has a chip on his shoulder to solidify himself as the starter for the remainder of the season. I expect him to have a solid game through the air...even if he does throw double-digit checkdown throws to Brian or Amara or Jake.
How do we expect the Michigan defense to perform in a hostile road environment?
Drew: Very well. The atmosphere will have more of an impact on Michigan’s offense than its defense. Utah’s offensive game plan is to feed Devontae Booker. He led the Pac-12 in carries last season, rushing for over 1,500 yards in the process, and he likely will lead the conference in that category again this season. However, Booker had an ordinary YPC, and Utah’s offensive line was just average. As a result, Utah’s run offense was 79th in S&P+. On the other hand, Michigan’s run defense was 8th in S&P+ last season and should be excellent again this season. The Wolverines should win their matchup against Booker, which may cause the Utes to resort to throwing the football -- not their strength given the new faces Utah has at wide receiver. I think Michigan’s defense will do what it needs to do to give Michigan a great shot to win. Can Michigan’s offense, though?
Anthony: Michigan should be okay. I do not expect many deer-in-the-headlights looking teams from this coaching staff, especially in a game that they have had several months to prepare for, which you know they have been. They might not win the game, but I don’t think they will embarrass themselves by any means. This will be a well-played football game on both sides. Kyle Whittingham does not get enough credit for how good of a coach he is and he will have his guys ready as well.
Amanda: I’m on the fence with this one. Michigan’s road defense was iffy last season and I’m not sure they have completely worked out all of their kinks, especially in passing situations. While the rush defense was stifling in 2014, I am not sold yet on the pass defense. Not giving up big plays and avoiding mental mistakes will be key. The rush defense will hold their own in this game, though, containing Devontae Booker and perhaps forcing a turnover. I’ll say this: the issues that may arise for the defense in this game will not be due to the "hostile road environment," but rather giving up big passing plays.
Zach: Not good. Maybe it’s because I’m on the Devontae Booker band wagon and expect big things from him this season, but I have no confidence in Michigan’s defense containing the opposing unit. And let’s say Booker doesn’t break out for 100+ yards and 2+ touchdowns, the defense has to worry about Travis Wilson, who led Utah to the Las Vegas Bowl last season and threw for 18 touchdowns, while committing just five interceptions.
Time for predictions. Who wins Thursday night and what will the score be?
Drew: This will be a low-scoring affair. Michigan’s run defense contains Devontae Booker, and Utah’s passing game will not find much success through the air. On the other hand, Michigan’s offense will have its own troubles finding a rhythm in its first game with Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno. With both teams struggling to put points on the board, special teams and field position will be the difference-makers. Though Michigan will be improved in that area from last season, Utah may have the best kicking-punting tandem in the nation in long-distance kicker Andy Phillips and Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Phillips drills three field goals, Hackett punts Michigan into bad spots, and Utah holds off Michigan in what will be a dramatic fourth quarter. Utah 16, Michigan 14.
Anthony: This will be a physical football game between two very well-coached teams. I think Michigan has the goods to be able to contain Booker and pounce on opportunities on the offensive side of the ball. The question is if Michigan’s turnover woes are cured and if they can force more on defense. If they can win the turnover and time of possession battles, Michigan will win this one. Michigan 20, Utah 16. Wolverines win on a late touchdown.
KB: Utah has a few questions on offense, and Michigan has a veteran defense with a slightly-tweaked scheme. Points may be scarce, and I'm unsure how comfortable Rudock is going to be his first time out. I expect Drevno will try both quarterbacks during the game, and the front seven on both sides of the ball are going to determine a winner. Michigan has the advantage with personnel, but I don't think the running and passing schemes are going to click this soon. Utah 20, Michigan 17.
Amanda: This will be a low-scoring, close affair with the Michigan offense struggling to click at times. I see turnovers being a difference-maker in this game for both teams, with Utah holding a slight advantage over Michigan. The nerves from whichever QB is behind center, due to the hype and environment, may lead them to committing mental errors and forcing throws. Trying not a be a complete Debbie Downer, though, I think we will see flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball. I know everyone and their brother is eager to see what Harbaugh & company have in store for Jabrill Peppers, and I can see him committing a big play or two. Michigan may not score until late in the first half or even the second half, but will find their groove as the game goes on. However, I think Utah will hold off a late comeback attempt from Michigan, winning 17-10.
Zach: Fox Sports 1 will have a major ratings boost during Michigan’s first ever played game on a Thursday night. This may also be the last Thursday night game the Wolverines schedule in future years. Utah is mad. Utah is fired up. Utah is ready. Eight months of Harbaugh-mania will come to a close when the Utes’ offense lay the smackdown on D.J. Durkin and his defense. This wouldn’t be a disappointing loss in the least. Be patient and in time, everything will come to fruition. Utah 27, Michigan 17
What other game(s) are you watching on opening weekend?
Drew: All of them. College football is back, and I don’t want to miss a second of it.
Anthony: Oklahoma St. comes to my college town of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan to take on the Chippewas. There’s quite a buzz around town for it and I’m hoping to see CMU put up a respectable fight. Outside of that, I will be binge-watching every game I can get my hands on this weekend.
KB: Western Michigan-MSU has been a big deal in southwest Michigan this week. PJ Fleck is a rising star in a conference filled with sleeper talent. He might just catch the Spartans snoozing on a Friday night.
Amanda: Any of the B1G games, especially the Wisconsin v. ‘Bama matchup. I’m also pretty eager to see how Everett Golson performs at QB for FSU. But if we’re being completely honest, I probably won’t leave my couch this entire weekend, so short answer: every game.
Zach: Are we not forgetting Thursday night MACtion at Kelly/Shorts Stadium when lowly Oklahoma State takes on higher power Central Michigan? This will be a one sided ball game with the Cowboys wishing they didn’t schedule the Chippewas for their weekend road opener.