Bleeding Red: It wasn’t picture-perfect, but Utes win over Michigan still felt good

Football season is back again
Being a fan is not a sin
Your team may struggle to begin
But what’s important is the win

COMMENTARY — When we look back upon World Wars I and II, for the most part all we think about is that we won. Only occasionally do we get caught up in how many battles were won or lost, or how many cities were occupied, etc. Similarly, although I had a very difficult time getting out of bed this morning, the most important thing is that I am now up and awake (regardless of how many times I hit the snooze alarm and what time my feet eventually hit the floor).

That’s pretty much the primary takeaway from last week’s game against Michigan — Utah won. At the end of the season, the single most important stat will be the numbers in the win and loss columns, and the Utes are now 1-0. As iconic owner of the Oakland Raiders Al Davis summed up very nicely, “Just win baby, win.” I don’t care if Utah wins ugly, as long as they win.

JIm harbaugh (AP)
JIm Harbaugh (AP)

The first game of the season typically involves teams knocking a lot of rust off and trying to work out the many kinks on both sides of the ball. That’s why so many teams (oftentimes including the Utes) open the season with a cupcake game as a tune-up before facing real competition. To Utah’s credit, they jumped right into the fire with an over-hyped game involving Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan.

Because I can be a bit obsessive at times and I often thrive on over-analyzing minutia, let’s look a little deeper at what happened last Thursday night.

Michigan held the advantage in most of the relevant statistical categories, including time of possession, number of plays run, total yards, passing yards, third down conversions, sacks, net yards per punt, number of punts inside the 20 and kick return yards. The Wolverines were also flagged for less than half of the penalty yards imposed on the Utes. Harbaugh also bested Kyle Whittingham in the number of times he hitched up his pants on the sideline, and the emotion displayed in doing so.

In contrast, Utah only held the advantage in a handful of areas, but that proved to be enough. The Utes had the most rushing yards, interceptions, fourth-down conversions and punt return yards. Most importantly, at the end of the game Utah had the most points.

Another advantage for the Utes was the record-setting 47,825 people who attended the game. While there were stalwart Michigan fans in some of the seats, this was a prototypical Utah crowd that routinely shows up to support its team.

Going into this season, the Ute offense, and in particular the quarterback, was the biggest question mark. That remains to be the case. Utah struggled to establish a running game as Michigan crowded the line of scrimmage and essentially dared Travis Wilson to throw. Initially, precious few passes were thrown more than 7 or 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Ultimately, the passing game only extended to intermediate crossing routes and the only shot Wilson took down the field was a Hail Mary to end the first half.

I understand that teams don’t want to expose their entire playbook in the first game of the season, especially in a non-conference game. Nevertheless, Utah’s offensive play calls were less than inspired. After paying lip service throughout the off-season to the need to be more aggressive on offense, and in particular be much better in the passing game in order to make it easier on Devontae Booker and the running game, that certainly was not the case in the opener. I’m really hoping Utah is waiting to unleash a much more aggressive offense, including a passing attack that will actually stretch the field, in Pac-12 play.

Britain Covey nearly scores. | AP Photo
Britain Covey nearly scores. | AP Photo

One bright spot on offense was the play of the young receivers. True freshman Britain Covey led all receivers with 5 catches for 58 yards, including one spectacular catch and run that fell just short of the goal line. Covey also had the Utes’ sole punt return, gaining 14 yards when it initially appeared he had nowhere to go. Fellow freshman Tyrone Smith also hauled in two catches, including an 8-yard reception to sustain the Utes’ first touchdown drive.

Utah’s defense disappointed me the most. Admittedly, they were stout against the run, holding Michigan to only 76 total yards rushing — only 2.6 yards per rush. However, the team that led the nation in sacks last year did not get a single sack the entire game and often struggled to even put pressure on the quarterback sitting back in the pocket.

It is true that the Ute secondary had three interceptions, including a pick-six that turned out to be the margin of victory. Nevertheless, more often than not the secondary was positively porous, allowing receivers to run free down the field. If Michigan’s quarterback had not missed on three long balls that could have potentially turned into touchdowns as the receiver was well beyond any defenders, it could have been a very different ball game.

At the end of the day, Utah did what was necessary to win, and I’ll take it. The Utes were supposed to win, and they did — mission accomplished.

This Friday night, Utah hosts Utah State on The Hill for the Utes’ sole in-state game of the season (and I will resist the temptation to vent my bitter frustration that next week’s opponent will be Fresno State instead of BYU). Very similar to the Utes, the Aggies were lucky to win their home opener last week against a surprising Southern Utah team that gave Utah State a run for the money.

Both Utah and Utah State are out to prove that their first win was not a fluke. Here’s hoping the Utes remain undefeated for one more week.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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