ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) A decade ago, Michigan and Utah reached BCS bowls in the same season, the Wolverines by winning the Big Ten under Lloyd Carr and the Utes with an undefeated record under Urban Meyer.
Those memories seem awfully distant as Michigan prepares to host Utah on Saturday, but there is still enough potential within both of these teams to make this weekend’s game an intriguing one. This Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup isn’t being touted as a Rose Bowl preview, but the Wolverines could use a victory over a major-conference opponent, and Utah has put up big numbers offensively while trying to recover from back-to-back losing seasons.
”Our guys are excited to go there and play one of the most storied programs in college football,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said.
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Michigan is trying to reclaim some of its prestige in Brady Hoke’s fourth season as coach. He took the Wolverines to the Sugar Bowl in his first season, but the results since then have been more pedestrian. This year, expectations became tempered a bit after a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 6, but with the rest of the Big Ten struggling as well, Michigan (2-1) is still capable of having a successful season if it makes the necessary improvements.
The Wolverines haven’t won the Big Ten since that 2004 season, when they went to the Rose Bowl. Utah finished unbeaten that season, winning the Fiesta Bowl.
The Utes also went unbeaten in 2008 under Whittingham, winning at Michigan in that season’s opener. But Utah is only 20-19 since it started playing in the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah (2-0) opened this season with a 56-14 win over Idaho State and a 59-27 victory over Fresno State.
”They are a physical group, and they have always had offensive skill – the receivers, the backs, the quarterback. They have always been pretty skillful,” Hoke said. ”They are big up front. On defense, they are very active. They are very active and they pressure a bunch.”
Here are a few things to watch when the Wolverines host the Utes:
FUNCHESS’ HEALTH: After appearing to injure his leg against Notre Dame, Michigan WR Devin Funchess did not suit up for last week’s win over Miami (Ohio). The 6-foot-5 Funchess is probably Michigan’s most dynamic offensive player, so if he can’t play against Utah, it’s a significant loss for the Wolverines.
SHARP START: Utah QB Travis Wilson threw as many interceptions (16) as touchdown passes last season, but he hasn’t been picked off through the first two games in 2014. Dres Anderson is averaging 28 yards per catch for the Utes.
ON THE GROUND: Michigan RB Derrick Green is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He ran for a combined 307 yards against Appalachian State and Miami, but was held to 25 against Notre Dame. Utah has not been great at stopping the run so far this season, so look for the Wolverines to try to establish Green early.
DISRUPTIVE: What the Utes have done well is rush the passer. Utah has 11 sacks in two games, for an average of 5 1/2 that leads the nation. Michigan has struggled to protect QB Devin Gardner at times, and the Wolverines’ ability to avoid negative plays could be a major factor this week.
Utah is also averaging 10 1/2 tackles for loss, which is tied for the best mark in the nation.
”I think that speaks to the activeness and the athletic nature of our defensive front,” Whittingham said. ”We play aggressive defense here, and it’s good to show up in some of those categories.”
TURNOVER ISSUES: Michigan actually outgained Notre Dame, but the result was ugly thanks to four turnovers by the Wolverines. Then Michigan turned the ball over three times in the second quarter against Miami before recovering for a 34-10 win.
The Wolverines can’t afford to allow that sloppiness to become a habit.