When Michigan couldn't beat then-unranked Utah in Ann Arbor in September 2014, that was essentially the end of the Brady Hoke era. A failure to defend home turf against a non-blueblood in a prove-it year was a clear indication that the team wasn't going to meet demands.
Utah had to be excited to earn a win in its big-time non-conference showdown, but ending a mediocre era of Wolverine football proved only indicative of an eventual 5-4 finish in the Pac-12.
Now Jim Harbaugh has come to bring manball back to Michigan, while Utah's Kyle Whittingham keeps shuffling his assistants, trying to build an offense that fully capitalizes on the opportunities created by his aggressive defense and potent special teams.
This exciting opener (Thursday, Sept. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1) will be determined by whether Harbaugh's studs are ready to own the trenches against the physical Utes.
Can the bigger program control the point of attack?
The whole point of running a "pro-style" offense that puts big bodies at the inside receiver positions is to impose your will through sheer physicality. That's why this style has held its ground and why most of the premier universities that have gone spread, such as Auburn or Ohio State, have chosen varieties of the scheme that make use of powerful blockers.
Despite looking to feature a power coast-style offense, the Wolverines haven't matched what Harbaugh offers in quite some time. In 2013, they couldn't hope to run against even the likes of Akron without heavily involving QB Devin Gardner, while 2014 saw them finish 57th in Football Outsiders' rushing S&P+ despite bringing in former Alabama OC Doug Nussmeier to teach a simple approach.
While Utah might not be in as fertile a recruiting ground, the Utes' local population seems to supply physical players to control the point of attack. In 2014, the Utes' defense saw ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick combine for 35 tackles for loss, 28.5 of which were sacks. Dimick returns, along with DE Jason Fanaika (five sacks last year as a reserve), to try and match that tremendous production.
The basis of the Utah defense in 2014, and likely in 2015 as well, was relentlessly attacking with zone blitzes and betting on the resulting havoc having the final word.
Last year, Michigan could not handle this at all. On this play, despite Orchard lining up outside of the DE and with another potential blitzer behind him (at the bottom of your screen), an obviously threatening position, the Wolverines slid only their right guard and tackle that way, then released all three potential backfield blockers to the other side:
The result is yet another sack of Gardner, an image that is so etched in the minds of Wolverine fans that their brains may struggle to interpret this upcoming game's results as anything else.
Besides rarely giving itself a chance to block, Michigan struggled to win leverage battles. Its young linemen were pushed backward when they attempted zone blocking:
Which of those two teams would you suspect is the one loaded with former blue chip big men?
Of course when these teams met, the Utes couldn't run on Michigan either. A largely intact (save for star middle linebacker Jake Ryan) Wolverine front returns to try and control a Utah offense that found an identity in RB Devontae Booker.
Booker was an absolute demon in the open field. Playing careful, gap-control defense will be essential to Michigan's efforts to force QB Travis Wilson to beat new coordinator D.J. Durkin's blitz package. With more than 10 players returning in the front who have seen significant action under the tutelage of coordinator-turned-line coach Greg Mattison, Michigan should have an imposing run D.
Our Michigan-Utah blogs
Our Michigan-Utah blogs
Can Utah cover Harbaugh's Butt?
Despite being brilliant at pressuring offenses, Utah only ranked 38th in defensive S&P+. The Utes' deep coverage couldn't always clean up things that broke through the first wave. They were vulnerable to the run and less than dominant on passing downs, when teams knew the blitz was coming.
With top safety Brian Blechen moving on and both starting corners leaving, there isn't a ton of experience left in Utah's secondary. There will be a major onus on sophomore safeties Marcus Williams and Tevin Carter to make a leap after combining for 75 tackles and three interceptions.
The Utes spend a lot of time playing three-deep zone with two or three players at the second level, matching receivers and forcing the QB to make difficult decisions in the face of overload pressures. If they don't control seam routes and rally to make open field tackles, the whole structure collapses.
Against this vulnerability, Harbaugh will look to shove his Butt into the middle of the field. That'd be 6'6 junior tight end Jake Butt, who came back from a torn ACL to catch 21 passes for 211 yards and a pair of TDs in 2014. Butt stands to benefit as much as anybody from the tight end-friendly Harbaugh's arrival.
The perfect antidote to Utah's zone blitzes, which try to check underneath hot routes with safeties and linebackers, is making them cover a good tight end on seam routes, stick routes, and crossing routes in the middle. Butt ran a variety of routes just in the Michigan spring game, and a concept like Y-cross will give the Utes pause in how they structure their zone blitzes:
If the Utes blitz a linebacker or two, how do they keep the tight end covered in the middle of the field without leaving another route open? They'll need a linebacker or safety who can stay with Butt on all the routes, or else the Wolverines could undo the blitzing program by using him to create easy safety valves over the middle.
If Harbaugh can get one of his many quarterbacks up to speed with all of the tools at his disposal, the Michigan offense could finally manage to counter aggressive blitzing teams like the Utes or others that have given them trouble, like Michigan State.
On the flipside, Michigan's safeties struggled with Utah's spread passing game in 2014 and allowed Wilson to generate 8.6 yards per pass attempt, thanks to poor plays such as this one:
The Wolverines bring a man blitz, and the free safety is neither in position to play the deep middle and erase mistakes nor to pick up one of the two receivers that Utah releases to the weakside. He then takes a terrible angle that magnifies the error. Michigan was forced to play more two-deep coverages after this and try to contain the Ute offense, rather than attack it with blitzes.
However, Michigan does have potential answers. Jarrod Wilson made 10 starts at safety, and though he made few plays, he'll have another year of experience, invaluable at that position. He'll likely be paired with the ultra-athletic Jabrill Peppers as Michigan looks to put badly needed coverage ability in the middle.
Some of the talent Hoke recruited might finally be experienced enough to find answers against the kinds of teams that have given Michigan fits, teams with perhaps lesser athletes but sounder systems. Utah has been that kind of team.