The long-term future looks to be in good shape for as long as Jim Harbaugh sticks around Ann Arbor. The short-term future, on the other hand, suggests there could be some tough roads ahead. The Harbaugh era at Michigan got off to a losing start Thursday night in Salt Lake City. Utah’s (1-0) defense held firm in the fourth quarter with Justin Thomas picking off a pass from Michigan (0-1) quarterback Jake Rudock and returning it for a 55-yard touchdown and later stuffing the Wolverines on a fourth and short with 5:13 to play. For a second straight season, Utah flexed its muscle against Michigan, winning this year by a final score of 24-17.
Kyle Whittingham had his Utes ready to play typical Utah football, which is to say Utah played well on defense, forced some turnovers and managed to avoid having Travis Wilson implode. Utah’s quarterback was picked off once, but he completed 24 of his 33 pass attempts as Utah kept to mostly safe plays to wear down Michigan’s defense. That meant putting the ball on the ground with Devontae Booker leading the rushing attack and Wilson taking off as well. Each had a rushing touchdown in the victory.
While Michigan will fly home with a loss, there were some bright spots worth noting. Tight end Jake Butt proved to be a reliable target for Rudock as the two connected eight times for 93 yards and a touchdown. Amara Darboh also had a good game with seven catches for 91 yards. Jabrill Peppers had a good evening, making some key plays in the second half. He also had a kick return for 36 yards. And it was encouraging to see Rudock put together some plays late in the game to at least give Michigan a chance, if they had just recovered an onside kick.
This game alone should not go far in assessing the overall strength of the Pac-12 or the Big Ten against any other conference. Those arguments will continue to play out in games to come. However, the Big Ten could have benefitted from Michigan winning this one to carry over momentum gained from last year’s postseason. Now, the Pac-12 claims another notable victory to its profile. These types of wins can end up playing a deciding factor when it comes time to weighing playoff teams against one another, even if it does not involve Utah or Michigan. So point for the Pac-12 (and Pac-12 South), and no points for the Big Ten.
Michigan will welcome Harbaugh home in Ann arbor next weekend as the Wolverines once again play a Pac-12 opponent. This time it will be Oregon State, with former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen making his way back to Big Ten territory almost as quickly as he left it. Michigan will have some time to work out some kinks, but BYU will offer another stiff defensive test at the end of the month before Harbaugh’s Wolverines jump into Big Ten play.
Utah will stay home next week to play Utah State. The Aggies were in a real tough battle with FCS Southern Utah, losing 9-5 at the conclusion of the Utah-Michigan game), with Chuckie Keeton having an ineffective night. Maybe Utah State wasn’t showing much to refrain from giving Utah much film? Or maybe this game will be a tad easier than initially expected for the Utes.