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August 30, 2008

Rodriguez, Michigan search for answers after loss

Utah 25, Michigan 23: Recap | Box score | Photos

ANN ARBOR, Mich. More than four hours before kickoff, fans tailgating on the golf course across from Michigan Stadium waited in nervous anticipation for the Rich Rodriguez era to begin.

They lined the roads from Schembechler Hall to the entrance of the Big House for the Victors' Walk, a relic from Bo's days. The pregame crowd usually only gets that big that early for Ohio State, Wolverines fans said.

Many were resigned that this would be a rebuilding season for their team, but few not even Rodriguez suspected it would start so inauspiciously.

"It's like children on Christmas morning," said Mike Pollak, 31, a lifelong Michigan fan and Ann Arbor resident. "You don't know what you're going to get."

It's safe to say Michigan's performance in Rodriguez's debut wasn't on their list. Michigan provided some late thrills in a 25-23 loss to Utah, but the defeat showed Rodriguez wasn't bluffing when he said he wished he had another month of practice.

Utah had its own troubles with penalties, turnovers and special teams gaffes, but the Utes became the second team in two years to leave the "Big House" on opening day with bigger aspirations. Four seasons removed from an undefeated season and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Utah could be in position for another run at a BCS berth.

"The sign of a pretty good team is when you can play not your best football and still come away with a win over a quality opponent," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

The "quality opponent" comment may be in question, especially offensively. Rodriguez didn't name Nick Sheridan as his starting quarterback until Thursday. The might be up for grabs going into next week's home game against Miami University.

Neither team was that sharp, but Utah's experience gave the Utes the edge. The teams combined for six turnovers, and Utah committed 15 penalties and had a punt blocked to keep Michigan in the game. Utah outgained Michigan 313-102 in the first half. The final score could have been a lot worse for Michigan.
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson was far from perfect, especially in the second half, but he ran the offense effectively. He was 21 of 33 for 305 yards with a touchdown. Six sacks and numerous pre-snap penalties limited what could have been a bigger day.
Michigan came out flat on defense in the first half, but sophomore linebacker Obi Ezeh was everywhere. He finished with a career-high 15 tackles and stopped a potential Utah scoring drive with an interception at the goal line.
Michigan battled back from a 25-10 deficit, but lost an opportunity to tie it when Steven Threet's two-point conversion attempt sailed just barely over the outstretched hands of Toney Clemons in the back of the end zone.
Michigan wide receivers Greg Mathews (ankle) and Junior Hemingway (shoulder) got hurt during the game. A shoulder injury limited junior tailback Carlos Brown in the running game. Safety Brandon Harrison (groin) didn't play in the second half.
Though he had a punt blocked, Utah's Louie Sakoda kicked field goals of 52, 43, 41 and 28 yards and had punts of 59, 50 and 47 yards when field position was critical. Michigan used a video introduction on the JumboTron for the first time in school history. The intro began with highlights of Bo Schembechler, Desmond Howard, Anthony Carter and other Michigan greats, and ended with Rich Rodriguez saying, "I coach for Michigan." The last time Michigan lost back-to-back openers was 1989-90, when it lost the last two of four in a row to Notre Dame. The last Michigan coach to lose his home debut was Bump Elliott in 1959, with a 20-15 loss to Missouri.
"I was hoping it would be less (mistakes)," Rodriguez said. "There were more in the game than there were in practice, but you should expect that."

The thought of tradition-laden Michigan embracing the spread offense is a tough concept. Watching Michigan sort out the scheme on the fly was even more unpleasant.

Rodriguez's offense at West Virginia dominated the ground game in the Big East the past few years, but Pat White and Steve Slaton were nowhere to be found against Utah. The Wolverines used two quarterbacks and two tailbacks, but mustered just 37 rushing yards. Sheridan and backup Steven Threet struggled as the Wolverines finished with only 203 yards of total offense.

Rodriguez expected his young offense to struggle. His starting backfield included Sheridan, a former walk-on, and true freshman Sam McGuffie. All but one starter on the offensive line and the top two receivers had to be replaced.

Michigan's first play a shovel pass to freshman wide receiver Martavious Odoms excited the Big House crowd. But the 2-yard gain was a sign of things to come. The Wolverines managed only 100 more yards in the half, and Rodriguez called the running game a "huge disappointment."

In the first two quarters, Sheridan threw wildly, tossed an interception and was forced to scramble out of the pocket several times. His final play early in the third quarter summed up the day for Michigan. With the Wolverines on their 8, Sheridan and McGuffie mixed up a read option. Sheridan wanted to hand off, but McGuffie thought Sheridan would keep it. Turnover. Threet went the rest of the way.

"We need to get that squared away," said Sheridan, who was 11 of 19 for 98 yards and a touchdown. "We'll get that cleaned up."

That is a basic play in Rodriguez's offense, and the mix-up is a clear signal Michigan has a long way to go before playing Big Ten-caliber football. Rodriguez scaled the offense down to the bare minimum, making it easier for players to execute - but also easier for the defense to anticipate.

"It really wasn't that complex," Rodriguez said. "We ran three different run schemes. That's it. We ran different eight or nine different route patterns. We're probably as simple as we could ever be. At some point, we've got to add more because it's easy to scout you."

While it was expected the offense wouldn't look like West Virginia overnight, the first-half defensive performance was a shock.

Utah moved the ball at will in amassing 313 first-half yards. Senior quarterback Brian Johnson picked through the soft spots in the defense for five scoring drives but only two touchdowns because of penalties in the red zone. The lack of touchdowns made for some tense times for Utah in the fourth quarter.

Still, even though the defense clamped down and allowed only 28 second-half yards, Michigan couldn't rally. The Wolverines cut the lead to 2 on a 55-yard touchdown pass from Threet to Junior Hemingway and a short McGuffie run, but Michigan failed on the two-point conversion after McGuffie's score and didn't get another first down.

"It didn't look like we were playing very fast at times," Rodriguez said. "I think some of that was because we were thinking (and not reacting) on either side of the ball."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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