Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan opens with 24-17 loss at Utah

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Friday, September 4, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY -- Jim Harbaugh was swarmed by cameramen from the moment he stepped off the bus at Rice-Eccles Stadium. College football's newest rock star had finally arrived to play a game after eight months of hype.

And Utahwas sick of hearing about it.

The Utes felt disrespected despite being favored and spoiled Harbaugh's Michigancoaching debut with a smothering defense, beating the Wolverines 24-17 on Thursday night in the opener for both teams.

"We beat Michigan for the third time in a row," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "That's a heck of an accolade for our program."

Harbaugh came as advertised -- blue long-sleeved shirt, blue cap with the block "M," khakis and lanyard with whistle attached.

Unfortunately for Michigan fans, the team didn't look drastically different from the 2014 version. The quarterback struggled, and the run game was nonexistent. That spelled trouble for the offense.

"I thought we were playing a little bit tentative in the first half and not coming off the ball like we need to," Harbaugh said. "We did miss some holes, backs missed some holes. All things to grow and improve on, and I thought we did that as the game went on."

Harbaugh, the former Michigan quarterback who returned to his alma mater eight months ago after leaving the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, faced many of the same issues that plagued former coach Brady Hoke.

Quarterback Jake Rudock beat out Shane Morris for the start. An Iowa transfer, Rudock had a reputation for limiting turnovers but promptly threw three interceptions against Utah and finished 27-for-43 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Michigan was held to 355 yards, gaining only 76 on the ground. Eighty of those yards came on Michigan's final drive of the game.

De'Veon Smith led Michigan with 17 carries but averaged just 2.8 yards. Harbaugh rolled in backups Ty Isaac and Derrick Green, and they didn't fare any better. Michigan had the No. 64 rush offense in 2014, and things didn't look any better against Utah.

The Utes took a 24-10 lead on Justin Thomas' 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 7:58 left in the fourth quarter.

"Those are plays you dream about," Thomas said. "I just broke on the play, and that's all I remember and then just took off. I prayed about getting a play like this, and it just came through."

Linebacker Gionni Paul had a game-high 14 tackles for Utah.

Marcus Williams andCory Butler-Byrdjoined Thomas with interceptions, helping to hold Rudock in check. Rudock's lone touchdown pass came with 54 seconds left -- and into triple coverage. Tight end Jake Butt made a great play, leaping over a defender for the score.

Utah running back Devontae Booker overcame a slow start to finish with a team-high seven catches for 55 yards and added 69 yards rushing. Travis Wilson threw for 208 yards and ran for 53 yards and a touchdown.

The Utes entered with questions at quarterback as well, but Wilson did exactly what the team needed -- take care of the ball and be enough of a threat to keep teams from loading up against Booker. He was able to do that and more against a Wolverines team that focused on the run game. Wilson didn't aggressively push the ball down the field but took checkdowns and threw short routes to Booker and others.

Utah took a 17-3 lead in the third quarter after Wilson faked a handoff to Booker on first down from the 14-yard line, and the entire Michigan defense flowed with him to the left. Wilson kept the ball and sprinted up the middle of the field untouched for a 14-yard touchdown.

"I felt comfortable from the beginning," Wilson said. "I just wanted to play with confidence and just take care of the ball."

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