Everybody expects big things out of Jim Harbaugh's Michigan ... eventually.
For such a high-pressure situation, Harbaugh entered his first season as head of his alma mater with reasonable immediate expectations. You could find analysts and fans predicting the Wolverines would overachieve, but there were few bold "Big Ten dark horse!" claims.
Part of that is probably because of Michigan's biggest rival. Even an optimist had to tap the brakes a bit when realizing what defending national champion Ohio State returns. But part of it was also because, well, we all saw Michigan play last year. We all saw the Wolverines struggle to run; we all saw the lack of protection or development at quarterback.
So far, so ... decent?
Harbaugh's debut, a 24-17 loss at Utah on Thursday night, was one of both encouragement and confirmation. Michigan's defense, projected to be quite strong (11th in Def. S&P+), mostly looked the part against an admittedly conservative offense. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson did complete 73 percent of his passes, but only at 8.7 yards per completion. He took few chances downfield but had few opportunities to do so anyway.
The run defense, a major strength last year, looks like it will be so again. Star Utah running back Devontae Booker gained just 69 yards in 22 carries (3.1 per carry), and seven Wolverines took part in a tackle for loss (only one of which was a sack). Senior lineman Chris Wormley was quicker than whichever Utah blocker was trying to get a hand on him; he recorded three tackles for loss and twice stuffed Booker in the backfield. On the perimeter, young blue-chipper Jabrill Peppers proved that the rumbles about his play-making ability were dead on.
Utah didn't take too many chances, but the fact that Michigan held the Utes to 4.8 yards per play and forced three early three-and-outs was a good sign.
That was the good news
The bad news: Michigan doesn't look any sturdier on the offensive line or at quarterback.
Against a defense that ranked only 51st in Rushing S&P+ last season, Michigan found no opportunities to run. Wolverine halfbacks De'Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, and Derrick Green combined to gain just 60 yards, 2.6 yards per carry.
The awful running game did two detrimental things. First, it created third-and-mediums or third-and-longs. Of Michigan's 16 third downs, eight had at least five yards to go.
Second, it meant every third down was a passing down. Michigan rushed only four times in these 16 third downs, and two were scrambles by quarterback Jake Rudock. Michigan was rendered predictable. Worse yet, on the Wolverines' two third-and-1 rushes, one gained two yards, and the other gained zero ... and was followed by a zero-yard gain on fourth-and-1 as well.
Utah's defensive front dominated Michigan's, but when Rudock did have time, the results were dismal. He twice missed open sprinter Jehu Chesson on deep throws, and he was picked off once on a longer throw.
The theory was that Rudock, an Iowa transfer who blew no one away last year but completed 62 percent of his passes and threw only five picks, won the job over former blue-chipper Shane Morris in part because of his ability to avoid mistakes. But against Utah, his mistakes -- overthrows and three picks -- perhaps made the difference. That feels a bit unfair, considering how ineffective the run game was, and Rudock made some solid throws down the middle of the field (usually to tight end Jake Butt). But he missed some that you have to make.
Michigan will be solid this year
Michigan's run defense will be tested when BYU comes to town in a few weeks, but D.J. Durkin's D should give the Wolverines a chance to win games.
Despite discouraging output on the ground, Michigan did unearth some options in the passing game. Harbaugh loved passing to the tight end at Stanford, and he has some nice big guys to get involved this year; tight ends were targeted with nearly 40 percent of Rudock's passes, and Butt caught eight of 11 balls for 93 yards and a tough touchdown reception.
Butt was Rudock's third-down man of choice, and while opponents will catch on to that, Amara Darboh's first outing as Michigan's undisputed No. 1 wideout went well, too. While Rudock couldn't find a connection with Chesson, Darboh caught eight of 11 passes for 101 yards and a late score.
And freshman Grant Perry, a rather unheralded member of Harbaugh's February class, caught three of four passes for 41 yards. Attempts to get mammoth tight end A.J. Williams were mostly failures (three targets, one catch, two yards), but there were some happy signs.
Rudock's decision-making was decent, but his downfield inaccuracy might have kept the door open for Shane Morris to win the job.
When Bo Schembechler took over at Michigan in 1969, he inherited a squad that was decent (22-18 over the last four years) but not good enough. The Wolverines hadn't been to the Rose Bowl in five years and had lost three of four to Ohio State.
Schembechler's first squad lost early battles to a great Missouri and on the road to Michigan State. But they caught fire over the last half, winning four conference games in a row by an average of 45-6, then upsetting undefeated Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
It might be a bit much to ask that Harbaugh match that. But Harbaugh has a defense and a couple of go-to pass catchers. Last year's weaknesses are destined to be this year's weaknesses, but there are enough strengths to make this an entertaining, encouraging fall.
Other thoughts from Thursday night
Utah did look pretty good last night
Harbaugh's debut sucked up most of the oxygen, which was frustrating to Ute fans, but Kyle Whittingham's squad did what it needed. Despite the loss of its best pass rusher and best on-ball defender (and despite some lucky misses by Rudock), the pass defense was still fast and opportunistic.
There weren't many havoc plays beyond the three turnovers -- having only three tackles for loss is a bit disturbing -- and linebacker Gionni Paul lost his mind and committed a couple of personal fouls, but the run front was sturdy, and Wilson, once as exciting (for reasons good and bad) as any quarterback in the country, was comfortable. I caught hell from Utah fans for where I put the Utes in my preseason power rankings, but that was a solid first step.
Let's just call it quits now
F/+ picks were 7-3 ATS, 16-2 straight up, and ['accidentally' deletes spreadsheets'] WELP I GUESS I'LL CALL THAT A SEASON THEN.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) September 4, 2015
My F/+ ratings had both FIU (against UCF) and Hawaii (against Colorado) covering but not winning outright. And including those sketchy lines for FCS games, the picks went 15-3 against the spread on opening night. It's all downhill from here.
TCU's fine ... I guess
An opening night road game against a physical opponent is likely to be more frustrating than fun, and the fact that TCU won (while its retooled defense held Minnesota's retooled offense to 4.6 yards per play) is good enough.
But the 23-17 win played out in a couple of discouraging ways. First, Trevone Boykin looked more like 2013 Trevone -- inefficient, bailed out by athleticism -- than 2014 Trevone. He missed open receivers downfield and averaged just 5.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks). It's one thing to struggle, especially against a strong Minnesota pass defense, but it's another to struggle in a way that induces flashbacks.
Second, it served as a reminder of TCU's 2014 luck-of-the-bounce. The Horned Frogs' turnovers luck worked out to about 6.3 points per game in their favor, most in the country. It helped them to a 3-1 record in one-possession games, and turnovers and returns played a major role in keeping that one loss close.
Thursday, the shoe was on the other foot. Looking at fumbles and passes defensed, the stats suggest Minnesota should have committed about 2.9 turnovers to TCU's 1.2. Instead, the turnovers were an even 2-2, and that nearly cost the Frogs.
You need luck and skill to win big; TCU had both last year but had only one last night.
Congrats to Hawaii, but ...
... this is a bad look, refs.
If you missed it, the bizarre finish to Colorado vs. Hawaii. pic.twitter.com/vmWKaiBIzH— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) September 4, 2015
Always be closing
Your weekly reminder that finishing drives matters:
- North Carolina: 6 scoring opportunities, 13 points: (1 touchdown, 2 field goals, 3 interceptions)
- South Carolina: 6 scoring opportunities, 17 points (2 touchdowns, 1 field goal, 1 missed field goal, 1 turnover on downs, 1 punt)
Neither team covered itself in offensive glory, but if either had managed to convert opportunities, it would have won easily. You should average about four points per scoring opportunity (first down inside the 40); these teams averaged 2.5. Six of 12 opps came away with no points. But South Carolina scored two touchdowns to UNC's one; that made the difference.
I see you, Georgia Tech
Opening night is typically defined by sloppiness. That applied throughout most locales, but not in Atlanta, where Georgia Tech finished Alcorn State off in approximately four minutes. The Yellow Jackets scored touchdowns on their fifth and 11th snaps of the season, led by 27 points with 3:49 left in the first quarter, and didn't allow Alcorn State a first down until the Braves' sixth possession. That'll do.
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SB Nation presents: The good times since Jim Harbaugh took the Michigan job