August 30, 2008

August 30, 2008 - Utah at Michigan

HOW IS IT GREAT? Here's what needs to be remembered about this game: Michigan was ranked #24 in the Coaches Poll and was favored to beat Utah by 3; was coached by Rich Rodriguez, who had previously led West Virginia to national prominence; the game was played at perhaps the most storied venue in college football; and Utah came away with the victory to begin the greatest season in their history.

Nevertheless, should one choose to examine this game further, it will be discovered that this win wasn't as amazing as one might initially suspect. Like Texas A&M in 2004, Michigan had some lofty expectations in 2008 that they failed to live up to (they finished 3-8). But unlike in their game against A&M, Utah failed to put Michigan away early, and let them hang around all game.

This was a difficult game to watch. Right from the start, Utah clearly appeared to be the better team, but was never able to get rolling. Penalties brought back every big play for the Utes, and the offense couldn't seem to finish drives -- apart from their two first half touchdowns, they had to settle for four long Louie Sakoda field goals.

It was evident by the end of the Michigan game that if Utah was going to have another undefeated run, it wouldn't be like the one they had in 2004. Instead of destroying every opponent on their schedule one by one, Utah's 2008 team would have to grind it out, endure some stiff adversity, and survive some close calls.

Still, this game should be remembered as one of the great Utah football games due to the circumstances as they existed on the day of the game: the venue, Michigan's ranking, and Utah's upset victory. It was the start of what would become the greatest season in Utah's history, and in some ways epitomized that season overall.

FURTHER READING:
• "Go out and play like a top-10 football team, because that's what you are."
-- Brian Johnson,
speaking to the team in the locker room before the game.
From Utah's 2008 Drive For Dominance DVD.

• The 2008 Michigan team featured YouTube sensation Sam McGuffie, who had 30 yards and a TD against the Utes. McGuffie, who chose Michigan over Notre Dame and USC, left the team at the end of the season and has transferred to Rice.

WHAT THE PRESS HAD TO SAY:

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
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By Dirk Facer
Deseret Morning News
August 31, 2008

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Utah made itself at home in the Big House on Saturday. The Utes walked through the front door and did just about everything but lie on the couch and root around in the kitchen — for the better part of three quarters, anyhow.

OK, things weren't that cozy.

In fact, the action wound up getting a bit dramatic at Michigan Stadium.

Utah, however, weathered the storm and held on to defeat Michigan 25-23 before a crowd of 108,421 and a national television audience.

"I'm very proud of our guys and the way they hung in there," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after the 2008 season-opener. "This house got rocking."

Trailing 25-10 with less than nine minutes remaining, the home team climbed back into contention by blocking a punt and recovering a fumble. The Utah turnovers led to a pair of Michigan touchdowns. A failed two-point conversion attempt on the second and final score proved to be the difference.

So, too, was effective play on offense, defense and special teams.

"It was gut-check time, and we had to have some guys step up," said Whittingham, who acknowledged it shouldn't have been as close as it ended up.

The outcome, however, was pleasing.

"It's a very good way to start the season," Whittingham said.

Knocking off the 24th-ranked team in the coaches poll on the road left the Utes in a festive mood.

"Words can't explain how I feel right now," cornerback Sean Smith said as he walked off the field. "The defense came out clicking and the offense was clicking. It was great to come out and get a win in the Big House."

Early on, Utah dominated the game statistically and reeled off 19 straight points over the second and third quarters. The Utes inflicted most of the damage in the first half, holding a commanding 313-102 advantage in total offense yardage.

Michigan got off to a shaky start in Rich Rodriguez's debut as head coach. The Wolverines managed just four first downs before the break and were a paltry 1-of-7 in third-down situations.

"In the first half, I thought Utah controlled the game with their quick passing game and they had our defense on its heels a little bit," Rodriguez said. "That got adjusted in the second half. We got some momentum going and didn't quit. But we just didn't execute."

Utah quarterback Brian Johnson did. The senior wound up completing 21-of-33 passes for 305 yards (253 in the first half) and a touchdown.

"There were stretches when Brian looked lights out," Whittingham said. "He's our guy. He's our team leader and to have him managing the offense, running the offense, is a huge plus for us."

Johnson, who teamed with Bradon Godfrey on a 19-yard scoring strike just before halftime, wasn't the only bright spot for Utah.

Contributions were plentiful in the season-opener.

Louie Sakoda tied a school record by making four field goals. He connected from distances of 28, 43 and 41 yards in the second quarter and made the longest kick of his career at Utah with a 53-yarder in the third.

When things got tight down the stretch, the All-American had a 50-yard punt that wasn't returned to bury Michigan deep in its own territory.

Whittingham said another key was the play of the offensive line against the Wolverines' experienced defensive front.

"To me that was the most critical match-up in the game," he explained. "I think our guys held their own."

The biggest difference-maker, however, was Utah's defense. Whittingham said their speed was a factor in slowing Michigan down.

The Wolverines used two inexperienced quarterbacks in Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet, and neither reached 100 yards passing or had more than two yards rushing.

"The kids played extremely tough," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "I didn't sense any fatigue at all."

Paul Kruger led the Utes with nine tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Nai Fotu matched the latter and was one of five Utah defenders to make a tackle-for-loss and one of three with a sack. Greg Newman recovered a fumble and Smith picked off a pass.

"I think we just stuck to the game plan and came out real aggressive and flying around," Kruger said. "A lot of things went well for us and a lot of things didn't. I think we responded to opposition and it was just a great day for us."

It wasn't perfect. The Utes had just 28 yards of offense in the second half, turned the ball over three times by game's end and had a punt and PAT blocked.

The mistakes helped set up an 8-yard scoring strike from Sheridan to Michael Shaw that gave Michigan an early 7-0 lead. Utah responded with an 8-yard touchdown run by Corbin Louks, but trailed 7-6 when the extra point was deflected.

The Utes eventually gained control of the game and held a comfortable lead until the final minutes.

Michigan began its late rally by blocking a punt and scoring a play later on a 33-yard touchdown toss from Threet to Junior Hemingway.

Less than three minutes passed before the Wolverines added a 3-yard run by Sam McGuffie, capping a drive that began by recovering a Utah fumble on the 31-yard line.

An ensuing two-point conversion attempt, which would have tied the game, failed when Threet's attempt to connect with receiver Toney Cleamons near the back of the end zone was incomplete.

The Wolverines never got another chance to erase the deficit. Sakoda's punting and Utah's defense stuffed them inside their own 35 the rest of the way to preserve the victory.

And a big one at that.

"For me personally, this is our biggest win since Coach Whit has been the coach here — huge venue, huge task," Johnson said. "We accepted that challenge. We came out, played well and got a win."

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