Preview: Utah 2015 Comment Count

Ace September 3rd, 2015 at 2:05 PM

Essentials

WHAT Michigan at Utah
WHERE Rice-Eccles Stadium
Salt Lake City, UT
WHEN 8:30 pm Eastern
September 3rd, 2015
THE LINE Utah –4.5
TELEVISION Fox Sports 1/Fox Sports Go
TICKETS From $225
WEATHER mid 80s, partly cloudy, 10-20 mph wind

HARBAUGH

Overview

It's here. It's finally here.

It's safe to say things are little different this year. Yes, Utah beat Michigan in 2014, but even by that early juncture in the season M fans certainly weren't saying "IT'S HERE" in tones normally reserved for Christmas Day or a particularly indulgent Amazon Prime order.

The Utes enter the game as the favorite, though the line has creeped down a point after holding at -5.5 for much of the offseason. Both teams should look substantially different than they did last fall. That bodes well for Michigan; we'll see how it goes for Utah.

Since we don't run a FFFF in the first week, Seth threw together a diagram of the Utah starters (click for big):

Booker, Norris, Dimick, and Hackett (seriously) qualify as dangermen.

Run Offense vs Utah

holes like this one would be quite nice [Fuller]

If the biggest loss for the Utes wasn't DE Nate Orchard, the nation's leader in sacks a year ago, it was up-and-coming defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who left for the same job at Oregon State during a tumuluous offseason. In Sitake's place steps John Pease, whom Kyle Whittingham coaxed out of retirement; Peace last served as Whittingham's defensive line coach from 2009-10. Whittingham is a defensive specialist, so the impact of the coaching shakeup may be minimal, but it's worth keeping in mind. They're also switching to a 4-3, though like Michigan's "3-4" the difference may be more semantic than anything else.

Peace inherits a strong front seven even without Orchard. While the Utes only finished 50th in rushing S&P+ last year, their worst performances came against spread teams, and Michigan is very much not one of those. They're anchored on the interior by sophomore DT Lowell Lotulelei, younger brother of Star Lotulelei, who's coming off an impressive freshman campaign. The other tackle spot could be a weak point; Filipo Mokofisi is a 285-pound sophomore with two starts to his name. Utah boasts a pair of playmakers at defensive end; Hunter Dimick (4.5 run TFLs) and Jason Fanaika (4.5 run TFLs as a backup) were overshadowed by Orchard last year, but both are good players in their own right.

The linebackers are both experienced and productive; all three starters are seniors. MIKE Jared Norris led the team with 116 tackles in 2014, with 13 of those coming behind the line (nine against the run). "Rover" Gionni Paul is something of a poor man's Darron Lee, a 225-pound linebacker who's comfortable making plays in space. "Stud" Jason Whittingham, nephew of the head coach, missed most of last season but played well in ten starts as a sophomore.

The departure of strong safety Brian Blechen, a longtime standout who tallied 45 solo tackles last year, could hurt the run defense, but the Utes appear to have a ready-made replacement. Tevin Carter was one of Utah's best defenders in the four games he was healthy last year and he'll step into his more natural spot at strong safety this season.

There aren't many obvious holes in Utah's run defense, but their mediocre performance last year suggests they can be worn down; as Bill Connelly noted, they got worse as games went on last year, and depth could be even more of an issue up front this season. If Michigan's offense can control the ball for long enough stretches to force the Utes to rotate, De'Veon Smith and the rest of the committee could be in for a solid night of work.

Key Matchup: Ben Braden vs. Utah's interior line. Braden had some trouble keeping leverage in the run game last year and the Utes have guys who can get under your pads and make you go places you don't intend. I'm expecting M's line to hold up pretty well, but if Braden has a rough outing it could submarine the run game.

[Hit THE JUMP for CAN I MAKE IT THROUGH THIS PREVIEW WHILE BREATHING THROUGH A PAPER BAG LET'S FIND OUT.]

Pass Offense vs Utah

dimickHunter Dimick had ten sacks last year

While Utah's run defense looks stout, there are major questions surrounding their pass defense. The Utes relied heavily on their pass rush to bolster their secondary in 2014, and it's unlikely they can post the third-best adjusted sack rate in the country again without Orchard coming off the edge. Hunter Dimick, who had ten sacks of his own, will be a big test for M's tackles; it remains to be seen if his production and that of the rest of the pass rush is negatively affected by Orchard's absence—he's no longer there to take the focus off the rest of the group.

The much bigger concern, however, is in the secondary. Last year's top corner, Eric Rowe, went in the second round of the draft; their next two corners also aren't available due to graduation (Davion Orphey) or indefinite suspension (Dominique Hatfield). Slot corner Justin Thomas and part-time free safety starter Marcus Williams are the only returning starters in the secondary.

Utah's corners were very active knocking passes away last year. Now there's uncertainty. Their starters project to be junior Reginald Porter, who sat out all of 2014 with an injury after seeing primarily special teams duty in his redshirt freshman year, and JuCo transfer Cory Butler-Byrd. If Michigan's receivers can scrape their ceiling, there will be opportunties for big plays; that's one of the bigger ifs for the Wolverines, of course.

Michigan might have most of their success underneath. Even without Blechen, Utah's safeties should be solid, and they were good at preventing big plays last year. Jake Butt is a matchup nightmare, though, and Amara Darboh has shown he can work the intermediate stuff pretty well. Jake Rudock should test Utah deep a few times, but he might find the going easier with quick passes if the receivers can get an early advantage on Utah's green corners.

Key matchup: Drake Harris vs. his hamstrings. If Harris can take the top off the Utah defense even once or twice, the middle of the field could open up for Butt and Darboh to have big days.

Run Defense vs Utah

M limited Devontae Booker to his worst output of 2014 [Fuller]

The Utah run game was very average last year and with much of the same guys returning projects to be right in that area again. Running back Devontae Booker is getting a little dark horse Heisman hype (mostly from Utah fans) after rushing for over 1500 yards last year, but his production was as much a product of volume as ability. After a season-low output of 34 yards on 11 carries against Michigan, Booker toted the rock at least 30 times in three of the following five games, and his best outputs tended to come against underwhelming defenses.

That's not to say Booker isn't a threat. He runs well between the tackles, isn't easy to bring down, and he's an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He'll get a lot more touches tonight than he did in last year's game and whether or not he's particularly efficient he's likely to crack 100 total yards.

Quarterback Travis Wilson is a capable, if sometimes reckless, runner—you may remember him attempting to hurdle Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden to ill effect last year before going to the locker room for fear of a head injury. He's a long strider who can pick up chunks through designed runs or scrambles. Michigan's new-look defense with Jabrill Peppers playing in the box should dissuade Wilson from trying too much on the ground.

The offensive line returns 3.5 starters (RG Salesi Uhatafe had five starts in 2014) but loses a big pile-mover in left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, who entered the draft early and went off the board in the third round. They're a big group; all three interior lineman weigh 315+ and both tackles are 300 pounds. They pushed the pile well last year and will provide a solid test of Michigan's revamped front four.

Key Matchup: Chris Wormley vs. interior doubles. The depth chart release provided a surprise when Wormley was listed at 3-tech with Willie Henry at SDE. That move can really pay off against the run if Henry can routinely bash through the tackle and tight end, which seems quite plausible given his strength. The bigger concern is if Wormley can hold strong when two linemen try to blow him off the line. He's got the strength to hold up, but Utah also has a lot of size. This will be an intriguing battle.

Pass Defense vs Utah

Travis Wilson sacrificed yardage for efficiency last year [Fuller]

Much like the pass defense, Utah's pass offense loses several significant pieces. Gone are three of the top four receivers: Dres Anderson, Kaelin Clay, and TE Westlee Tonga. Senior wideout Kenneth Scott led the team with 49 receptions but barely cracked 10 YPC; he's very much a possession guy. 6'4" freshman Tyrone Smith is the projected starter on the other side; he sat out 2014 while getting academically eligible and was unranked coming out of high school. Bubba Poole, the backup running back last year, is set to start in the slot.

Wilson is the constant at quarterback, winning the job in the spring after staving off a challenge from Kendal Thompson, who made an appearance in last year's game but didn't prove any more effective during spot duty. Wilson traded off aggressiveness for smarter play last year, improving his TD-to-INT ratio from 16:16 to 18:7 while seeing his yards per attempt drop from a solid 7.7 to a mediocre 6.9. When he's on, he can be really on, but he often needs to be reigned in.

The line struggled to protect the passer last year, finishing 94th in adjusted sack rate; blame for that can probably fall equally on the line and Wilson, who sometimes tried to keep plays alive too long. That isn't likely to improve with Wilson back and a third-round left tackle gone. Whether Michigan can generate an organic pass rush without blitzing is another issue entirely.

Key Matchup: The #2 corner (presumably Channing Stribling) vs. the long ball. Utah doesn't have an explosive threat on the outside; Michigan has a major question mark opposite Jourdan Lewis. As long as M can tread water in that matchup, and especially avoid any big plays to that side, the rest of the defense should hold up quite well.

Special Teams

Utah may have the best kicker/punter combo Michigan will face all year. Kicker Andy Phillips made 23 of 28 field goals, including 12 of 15 from beyond 40 yards, and over half his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Aussie punter Tom Hackett knocked 36 of his 80 punts inside the 20; he was a major reason Utah finished 13th in adjusted field position in 2014.

The good news is fearsome return man Kaelin Clay, who was nearly as good going against 11 guys as he was against ten, is gone. Michigan will also spread punt and hopefully field 11 guys, which is progress.

Michigan will try to figure out whether Kenny Allen or Kyle Seychel is worthy of starting at kicker. The rest of the special teams should be vastly improved with John Baxter coaching, Blake O'Neill rugby punting, and Jabrill Peppers fielding returns.

Key Matchup: YOU PUT THE BALL THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS

Intangibles

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • M can't get movement up front against Utah's interior D-line
  • The receivers can't get open
  • The game comes down to a battle of field goals

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • De'Veon Smith is finding holes and hitting them
  • Drake Harris burns a guy deep
  • Jabrill Peppers does Jabrill Peppers things

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 for Last Year Really Sucked, +1 for That Front Seven Looks Stout, +1 for Road Night Game, -1 for As Long As This Looks Like Football I'll Be Happy, -1 for HARBAUGH)

Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for A Win Could Easily Mean a 4-0 Start, +1 for Let's Start This Off The Right Way, +1 for Seriously a Win Would Feel Soooooo Good, -1 for Non-Conference Road Game During a Year of Significant Change)

Loss will cause me to... look for the positives. Seriously!

Win will cause me to... completely lose all ability to keep things in context.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Utah's weak points line up nicely with Michigan's weak points. They may not have the receivers to test the shaky spot in the secondary. They lost their top three corners. If Michigan can keep the field position battle level—Hackett vs. O'Neill is quite a matchup—then I like their chances to come up with the handful of big plays needed to tip the scales.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Friday:

  • De'Veon Smith rushes for 80 yards on 18-ish carries.
  • Drake Harris only catches three passes, but one of them helps swing the game.
  • Jabrill Peppers makes the Sportscenter Top Ten.
  • Michigan, 26-18

Comments

mGrowOld

September 3rd, 2015 at 2:13 PM ^

A completely improbable and an almost impossible final score for a football game.

Things ARE returning to normal around here!  Welcome back Michigan football.....welcome back.

FreddieMercuryHayes

September 3rd, 2015 at 2:15 PM ^

I want to believe UM will win.  But, man, I just can't.  The last 7 years have just been disappointment after disappointment on the big stage with the exception of a blip or two in 2011.  I just don't know what to expect.

Steve333

September 3rd, 2015 at 2:31 PM ^

Thanks Ace- this got me distracted from my distraction of thinking about the game tonight instead of my work. I don't like moral victories, I just like victories, but a moral victory tonight will be that this Michigan team competes their hind-ends off and show improvement, potential and fire even if they are to come up short. Good luck to the players and new coaching staff tonight, especially to my South Torrance High school classmate Coach Drevno. Go Blue and HAIL!!

Brightside

September 3rd, 2015 at 2:33 PM ^

Even Brightside has trouble being optimistic after the past few years.  I was so sure we would be good last year...

I really do just want it to feel like we are on our way back, but winning this game would be so sweet.

Chick Evans

September 3rd, 2015 at 2:35 PM ^

So excited for this game. Win or lose, I just want to see a competitive team out there. I won't be crushed if we can't pull it out, I'm just super optimistic for a new style of football and more toughness out of this team. Let's goooooooo!