Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Michigan's offense was terrible against Utah. The offense scored three touchdowns off of short fields created by the defense and the special teams, but it only managed one possession where it created anything approximating a drive and that ended with Brandon Minor fumbling the ball away. The Michigan offense is a perfect storm of bad factors. It is:
Inexperienced: only three returning starters. The starting backfield was a sophomore walk-on and two freshman running backs.
Ill-fitting: Michigan does not have a quarterback who presents a running threat, nor does it have any dangerous slot receivers.
Learning a New Scheme: Rich Rodriguez is presented with the dual challenge of developing the basic technique of a pile of young players, along with teaching them a new scheme. The playbook is already limited by the fact that the talent isn't a good fit for the system; it is further limited by the fact that Rodriguez has to spoon-feed the offense in small doses.
Possibly Bad: It's not just that the quarterbacks are bad fits for this offense; they might simply be bad fits for any offense. Nick Sheridan does not have the arm to threaten a defense down the field except with moonballs down the sideline. Stephen Threet might turn into a good player, but he takes an awfully long time to read a defense. There's a reason why Michigan was so leery of throwing the ball down the middle of the field yesterday. That reason is most likely the fact that the quarterbacks showed themselves to be bad decision-makers and likely to throw interceptions when they did so in Fall practice.
(The only throw down the middle that I recall was a streak route by Brandon Minor that was wide open in the second quarter and Sheridan overthrew it. That was a great call by Rodriguez and Calvin Magee.)
All that said, yesterday illustrated that the transition to the spread is a good one for Michigan. Utah runs the spread and created all sorts of issues for a good Michigan defense for a half. Oregon, Missouri, Illinois, and Florida all scored 40+ points running variants of this offense. It is clearly the way to go. Michigan has one of the inventors of the offense running the show. One bad game or even one bad season does not change the fact that Michigan made the right decision going in this direction.
Yesterday also illustrated that struggles for first-year coaches are to be expected. Bobby Petrino was down by ten points at home to Western Illinois before Arkansas saved themselves. Mike Sherman lost his opener to Arkansas State. Washington State got blown out in Seattle by Oklahoma State. The only new coaches for BCS conference teams who got wins were playing I-AA opponents (Duke and Georgia Tech) or walked into a perfect situation (Ole Miss). If Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll combined for 11 losses in their first seasons at Ohio State and USC, then it's probably fair to assume that a good coach won't create magic overnight.
So what are the positives to be taken from the game yesterday?
1. The Barwis effect is real. The defensive linemen didn't become man-eating centaurs liked I'd hoped, but the team did show a major conditioning advantage. The defense was dominant in the second half. Speaking of which...
2. Michigan has a defensive coordinator who can make halftime adjustments. Michigan's defense was disappointing in the first half, but they came out in the second half playing a 3-35 and shut down a quality offense. Speaking of that quality offense...
3. Utah is a good team. If Utah were in the Big Ten, they would be smack dab in the Wisconsin-Penn State-Illinois jumble below Ohio State. Hell, they'd probably be towards the top of that clump. The Utes' indiscipline aside, Utah runs a well-designed offense with a terrific quarterback at the controls. Brian Johnson is probably the best quarterback that Michigan will face all year. He made some terrific throws in the first half when he had time and only clammed up in the second half when the coverage improved and he was being hit consistently. Utah has the requisite number of kick-ass Polynesians and a ludicrous cyborg kicker who put every field goal dead-center between the uprights with room to spear. If they win fewer than ten games, it can only be because of an injury to Johnson or Kyle Whittingham getting too conservative with a lead.
4. Michigan's special teams were quite good. The Wolverines blocked a PAT and a punt, they forced a fumble on a punt return, the kickoff returns looked dangerous, and they got a 50-yard field goal.
All in all, I was thinking at halftime that this would be a repeat of Oregon 2007 and ended the game thinking that it was Virginia 1995. Given that my expectations for the season were for seven wins and my expectations at halftime were for total humiliation, 25-23 isn't so bad. If only Michigan were in the ACC...