Jim Harbaugh kept his starting quarterback a secret from the world leading up to Thursday night’s season-opener against Utah. By the end of Harbaugh’s first game as the Michigan head coach, many Wolverines fans were left hoping he’d made a different decision.
Jake Rudock, the Iowa transfer also making his Michigan debut, threw three interceptions, including one that was taken back for a touchdown, and made plenty of other cringe-worthy throws as the Harbaugh Wolverines looked a lot like the Brady Hoke Wolverines en route to a season-opening 24-17 loss in Salt Lake City.
Now, Utah is a very good team and showed it with a strong performance from its defense and a strong performance from fourth-year starting quarterback Travis Wilson.
But Rudock, revealed to have won the Michigan quarterback competition against Shane Morris only when the offense took the field for the first time, made too many glaring mistakes. He threw two interceptions in the first half and twice overthrew a wide-open Jehu Chesson when the receiver had a clear path to the end zone. Rudock did establish a nice chemistry with tight end Jake Butt, hooking up with Butt for a third-quarter touchdown. Even that throw, though, could be criticized, as Butt made a sensational catch in the midst of triple coverage in the end zone.
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That touchdown cut Utah’s lead to 17-10 and gave Michigan life. When the Wolverines got the ball back, they seemed to have all the momentum on their side, but Rudock made a horrendous throw on a third down that was intercepted and returned 56 yards for a score in the fourth quarter, making it a two-touchdown game.
Rudock did lead a lightning-quick scoring drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Amara Darboh with less than a minute to play. But it was too little too late.
Michigan’s defense, so good last season, had an on-and-off night. One drive would be a long one for the Utes, the next a three and out. In the end, the Wolverines can hang their hat on slowing down Utes running back Devontae Booker, who rushed for just 69 yards. But Wilson had a great day, passing for 208 yards and rushing for another 53.
Aside from Rudock’s repeated poor decision-making — he threw three interceptions Thursday after throwing just five all season long last year with Iowa — Michigan’s biggest woe was its inability to establish much of a ground game. The Wolverines have struggled in that department the past two seasons, and 2015 didn’t start any differently with just a 76-yard rushing total on the night. De’Veon Smith carried the ball 17 times for only 47 yards. Ty Isaac got four carries for 12 yards, and Derrick Green gained one yard on just two carries.
Rudock — who finished with 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns — can draw some positives from a really rough debut. Darboh and Butt had big receiving days, with Darboh catching eight passes for 101 yards and Butt catching eight passes for 93 yards. Each had a touchdown. So passing-game production is possible. The run game’s complete lack of production is a much bigger concern, that is if Rudock returns to his turnover-light ways he demonstrated last season with the Hawkeyes.
It wasn't the ideal debut for Harbaugh in his new gig at his alma mater, but few believed Year 1 would yield instant success. Utah is a strong opponent. And rebuilding at Michigan will take time.