Utah 25, Michigan 23
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Michigan’s new era opened in a painfully familiar way for the 108,000-plus fans at the Big House: With an ugly-looking loss.
Rich Rodriguez’s debut as Wolverines coach was spoiled when Utah’s Brian Johnson threw for 305 yards and a touchdown and Louie Sakoda kicked four field goals, providing enough scoring to hold on for a 25-23 win Saturday.
“We got a chance to put our names on the map,” Johnson said.
A year ago, Appalachian State stunned the Wolverines. But this was more businesslike than shocking. The Utes were just a three-point underdog and received more votes than Michigan in The Associated Press preseason poll.
“They deserved to win,” Rodriguez said.
Utah decisively outplayed the Wolverines early and took a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter, but had a punt blocked and fumbled to give Michigan a shot to come back.
Michigan was missing three four-year starters on offense - left tackle Jake Long was a first-round pick in the NFL draft, and quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart were also picked.
Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet, who came in for former walk-on Nick Sheridan at quarterback, perfectly lofted a 33-yard pass to Junior Hemingway and Sam McGuffie ran for a score on the next drive to pull Michigan within two points midway through the fourth.
Threet’s pass on the 2-point conversion was high and the next two drives ended on three-and-outs. Michigan’s next drive ended with an incomplete pass on fourth down deep in its territory.
“It shouldn’t have been as close as it was,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s a sign of a pretty good football team when you can not play your best and come away with a win, particularly in a venue like this.”
Whittingham is 5-3 against Bowl Championship Series schools and the latest such victory was an important first step in giving the Utes a chance to bust the BCS at the end of the season.
“Non-BCS teams should get a shot at a championship every year,” Sakoda said.
Rodriguez’s spread offense was kept in check, gaining just 36 yards on the ground and 167 through the air with inexperienced players at virtually every position.
“The running game was a huge disappointment,” Rodriguez said. “We never were able to get the defense a rest because we couldn’t move the ball effectively.”
Rodriguez had a lot of success with his scheme at West Virginia, but he doesn’t have anyone remotely resembling Pat White or Steve Slaton to make plays.
Sheridan played for two-plus quarters and was 11-of-19 for 98 yards with one TD, getting fortunate breaks to avoid a few interceptions before being benched.
“We were struggling offensively, so I couldn’t blame him a bit,” Sheridan said. “We knew that both of us were going to play, and it was going to be based on how Coach felt.”
Threet entered in the third quarter and completed 8 of 19 passes for 69 yards and a score.
Michigan led 10-6 after one quarter on Sheridan’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Michael Shaw after a turnover in Utah territory and K.C. Lopata’s 50-yard field goal. Utah scored on an 8-yard run by Corbin Louks, but Michigan’s Terrance Taylor blocked the extra point.
The Utes dominated the second quarter, but stalled on three straight possessions, with Sakoda kicking field goals each time to put Utah ahead 15-10.
Michigan gave Utah one more chance before halftime as Sheridan’s up-for-grabs pass was intercepted by Sean Smith and gave Utah the ball at the Michigan 37 with 51 seconds left before halftime.
With 13 seconds left, Johnson connected with Bradon Godfrey for a 19-yard touchdown and a 22-10 halftime lead.
Sakoda’s fourth field goal, a career-best 53-yarder, was the only score of the third quarter.
Godfrey had 84 yards receiving and Matt Asiata ran for 77 yards, giving the Utes a good start in their quest to play in a BCS bowl for the first time since Urban Meyer helped them earn a spot four years ago in the Fiesta Bowl.
“We had the confidence. We had the swagger,” Sakoda said. “There was just a look in everyone’s eye. It’s not something I’ve seen in the last couple years of Utah football.”
Michigan, meanwhile, limped away from a season-opening setback looking dazed for the second year in a row. The Wolverines lost consecutive openers for the first time since 1989-90, when Notre Dame beat them in to begin both seasons.