The 2015 football season officially kicked off Thursday night and the main event of the evening was Jim Harbaugh’s debut as the head man for his alma mater. I could have wrote this earlier, but I thought it would be nice to give everyone a few days rest to clear the mind before I discuss what happened last Thursday night.
Jake Rudock was very up and down. He had some great moments, like his pinpoint touchdown pass to Jake Butt in the third quarter, and a great two minute offense with no time outs left. He also had some poor moments, like his three interceptions and his three overthrows that had big play potential, if not touchdown potential. I was on the Rudock wagon during camp, and I still am. He only threw five total interceptions during his time at Iowa last year, so it was tough to watch him through three in one night. Will he surpass that number this year? Probably, but the last time he had a three interception game was against Michigan in 2013. I expect Rudock to be the guy throughout Saturday’s game against Oregon State (Noon, ABC).
Overall the pass and catch game was the surprise of the night to me. Jake Butt, Amara Darboh, and Jehu Chesson all played very well. However, the person who surprised me the most was true freshman Grant Perry. Although he was involved with Rudock’s interceptions, he made some nice grabs late in the game. More importantly, he was able to prove that he can be reliable when it comes to blocking downfield. He sprung both Chesson and Darboh on quick bubble screens in the second half. Look out for Grant Perry to continue to get better as the year progresses. Darboh had some great grabs down the field, and Chesson showed off his track speed which will allow him to be a dangerous deep threat. Rudock may have overthrown Chesson and Darboh, but at least the receivers found a way to create separation to allow the chance to make big plays down the field. “Mr. Reliable” Jake Butt had a superb game and a great touchdown catch in the late stages of the third quarter. Look for him to be Rudock’s favorite target all year. What stood out the most was the fact that the offensive line was able to protect Rudock throughout the night. Sure, Utah did get a couple good licks on him, but the overall protection the front five provided was outstanding.
The running game wasn’t terrible, but in terms of what Harbaugh plans to establish, it was a sub-par performance. In comparison to the last couple of years, things looked remarkably better upfront. The front five showed signs of improvement in the second half alone. De’Veon Smith got the bulk of the carries, and was spelled by big bruiser, Ty Isaac. Smith displayed a lot of grit running in between the tackles, and proved thus far that he is the hardest runner on the team. However, he missed a couple of key cuts, one being at a crucial time in the fourth quarter. Instead of cutting to the left where there was nothing but green, he plowed straight ahead and was stopped for a minimal gain. The next play was Rudock’s pick six. One cut could have possibly lead to a different result. The Michigan ball carriers are going to need great vision this season in order to improve on last year’s marks.
Inconsistency troubled the Michigan defense Thursday night. When Utah slowed it down, the front four were able to create havoc in the backfield. However, when Utah pushed the tempo the guys up front were pushed around and not able to penetrate the backfield as easily. Overall, they were able to contain Devontae Booker, who I predicted to be the biggest threat in my roundtable prediction, but quarterback Travis Wilson was able to find some gaps including a big rushing touchdown to put the Utes up 17-3 in the third quarter. Chris Wormley and Willie Henry Jr. stuck out to me upfront. They were both able to create a lot of pressure, and I think they will be key elements of the defense all season. This group of linemen will continue to grow together and get better as the season goes along.
The linebackers and defensive backs were on and off all night, but I believe they showed a lot of potential even with their mishaps. There were a few missed assignments and blown tackles, but these two things can easily be fixed. The defensive unit improved as the game went on, so they will only get better week to week. Joe Bolden and Jabrill Peppers played an outstanding game overall. Bolden proved that he will lead the defensive core, and Peppers, who was beaten on a couple of plays early, showed us why so much hype surrounds him. It was great to see him play a full game, and his week to week performance will obviously be a big part of the success of Michigan’s defense.
Ahh, special teams. Where to start? Let’s start with the good. The good is that kicker Kenny Allen, who is now a scholarship athlete, did a great job on kickoffs by burying them in the back of the end zone. He also converted on a 29-yard field goal to give the Wolverines its first points of the game. Jabrill Peppers had a huge kick return in the fourth quarter to give the Wolverines life, and one solid kickoff return is really all he needed to prove that he is going to be a weapon when fielding kicks. The bad is that Kenny Allen is an immature kicker, and it will take him time to develop. He missed a 44-yard field goal after Rudock led a good drive to open the second half, allowing Utah solid field position and ultimately a touchdown. Both onside kick attempts at the end of the game were unsuccessful, but hopefully down the road, Michigan will find a way to win the ball game before an onside kick situation ever appears.
Thursday night provided most Michigan faithful with mixed emotions. Losing a highly anticipated debut is a buzzkill, especially when Michigan had plenty of chances to convert on big plays. We did learn, however, that there is life in this team. Installation will take time, but it is clear what Jim Harbaugh wants to do with this program. In my eyes, the key to this game was the resiliency the Wolverines showed. The players and staff never believed they were out of this game, which is VERY promising after watching the past few years of Michigan football. There is life in the fan base, there is life in the program, and it looks like the players will continue to play with heart this season. A loss is never fun, but a new brand of Michigan Football has returned.