On first glance, Michigan's season-opening loss to Utah looked a lot like many of its losses last season, as poor offensive line play, a pedestrian running game and too many turnovers doomed the Wolverines. Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde went so far as to grade Jim Harbaugh poorly in his debut, calling it disappointing, "how similar Michigan looked to the error-prone Brady Hoke teams that couldn't push anyone around up front offensively." To Forde's point, Michigan certainly didn't push Utah around much, yet despite the surface similarities, this year's Wolverine team is quite different than last year's version.
The offensive line play was disappointing, particularly in the first half when the Wolverines gained a paltry 25 yards on the ground. But the line play improved as the game progressed, providing starting tailback De'Veon Smith some running room in the second half, limited as it was. But not to be overlooked was that unlike Devin Gardner and Shane Morris before him, Jake Rudock didn't spend the majority of the game running for his life, as Michigan's pass protection was solid. Not only did Michigan hold the Utes without sack, but Ruddock was rarely pressured. Michigan's offensive line play is a far cry from where it needs to be, totaling just 76 yards on the night - or four yards fewer than Ohio state's Ezekiel Elliott tallied on his first carry of the season - but at the same time, it's ahead of where it was last season.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the solid protection did not help Rudock. Rudock brought with him to Michigan the reputation for not making mistakes, but that's exactly what he did - over and over. His three interceptions hurt, particularly the pick-six in which he stared down his receiver the entire play, but missing open receivers - two of which could have walked into the end zone had Rudock connected - was every bit as damaging. The biggest difference in the game was quarterback play, and Utah's Kevin Wilson played extremely well while Rudock played poorly. Yet, despite the mistakes, Rudock never lost his composure and led the Wolverines on a late fourth quarter touchdown drive. Harbaugh wisely kept Rudock in the game, but his play will have to improve, both in terms of limiting turnovers and making plays, for the Wolverines to have the season they want.
Other than quarterback, the biggest question facing the Wolverines coming into the season was whether any playmakers would emerge from the receiver ranks. In fact, among pass catchers, tight end Jake Butt was the only known quantity. Butt proved more than worthy of his preseason billing and often looked like the best player on the field, but he wasn't the only weapon at Rudock's disposal. You don't necessarily see the impact in the box score since so many big plays were left on the field, but the receiving corps, led by Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, was able to get open all night. Providing Rudock can work out the kinks, the passing game looks to be better than expected.
There were fewer questions concerning the defense leading into the season, and you saw why against Utah. Led by strong performances by Chris Wormley and Willy Henry, the Wolverine defense did what it had to do - it kept Michigan in the game. Despite some missed tackles and slip-ups in coverage, Michigan held a balanced Utah team in check and did nothing to dispel the notion that the defense - particularly the front seven - will be the strength of the team.
That's not to say the Wolverines don't have their issues. It wasn't just the offensive line that derailed the running game. Smith ran hard and broke the occasional tackle, but didn't show the kind of speed or elusiveness required to be a true difference-maker out of the backfield. Much was made of Smith misreading blocking lanes against the Utes, but his lack of explosiveness and failure to take advantage of the openings he had was the bigger issue. Ty Isaac seems the more fluid runner, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get more touches as the season progresses, but the only Wolverine who's actually shown any kind of burst is Drake Johnson, who's still working his way back from his second major knee injury. With Johnson still on the mend, it's not known when, or even if, he'll get significant touches, meaning the running game, while showing signs of improvement, will likely continue to struggle throughout the season.
Thursday night's game showed another significant difference between this and last season's teams. While Harbaugh didn't transform the Wolverines into a championship caliber team overnight, his influence was apparent, nonetheless. In the offensive play-calling, which was a vast improvement over that seen in recent years, and in halftime and in-game adjustments. The Wolverines not only continued to battle, but played better as the game progressed.
Michigan might not be where it wants to be yet, and most likely won't get there this season, but it's on the road to becoming a much better team. And for those disillusioned with an 0-1 start to the Harbaugh era, Harbaugh also lost his debuts with San Diego and Stanford, and things seemed to work out alright at each of those schools.