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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah's Sean Smith (4), left, Justin Taplin-Ross (33) and Dustin Hensel (65) celebrate as the University of Utah defeats the University of Michigan 25-23 in their season-opener in Ann Arbor Saturday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Utah made itself at home in the Big House on Saturday. The Utes walked through the front door and did just about everything but lie

on the couch and root around in the kitchen — for the better part of three quarters, anyhow.

OK, things weren't that cozy.

In fact, the action wound up getting a bit dramatic at Michigan Stadium.

Utah, however, weathered the storm and held on to defeat Michigan 25-23 before a crowd of 108,421 and a national television audience.

"I'm very proud of our guys and the way they hung in there," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after the 2008 season-opener. "This house got rocking."

Trailing 25-10 with less than nine minutes remaining, the home team climbed back into contention by blocking a punt and recovering a fumble. The Utah turnovers led to a pair of Michigan touchdowns. A failed two-point conversion attempt on the second and final score proved to be the difference.

So, too, was effective play on offense, defense and special teams.

"It was gut-check time, and we had to have some guys step up," said Whittingham, who acknowledged it shouldn't have been as close as it ended up.

The outcome, however, was pleasing.

"It's a very good way to start the season," Whittingham said.

Knocking off the 24th-ranked team in the coaches poll on the road left the Utes in a festive mood.

"Words can't explain how I feel right now," cornerback Sean Smith said as he walked off the field. "The defense came out clicking and the offense was clicking. It was great to come out and get a win in the Big House."

Early on, Utah dominated the game statistically and reeled off 19 straight points over the second and third quarters. The Utes inflicted most of the damage in the first half, holding a commanding 313-102 advantage in total offense yardage.

Michigan got off to a shaky start in Rich Rodriguez's debut as head coach. The Wolverines managed just four first downs before the break and were a paltry 1-of-7 in third-down situations.

"In the first half, I thought Utah controlled the game with their quick passing game and they had our defense on its heels a little bit," Rodriguez said. "That got adjusted in the second half. We got some momentum going and didn't quit. But we just didn't execute."

Utah quarterback Brian Johnson did. The senior wound up completing 21-of-33 passes for 305 yards (253 in the first half) and a touchdown.

"There were stretches when Brian looked lights out," Whittingham said. "He's our guy. He's our team leader and to have him managing the offense, running the offense, is a huge plus for us."

Johnson, who teamed with Bradon Godfrey on a 19-yard scoring strike just before halftime, wasn't the only bright spot for Utah.

Contributions were plentiful in the season-opener.

Louie Sakoda tied a school record by making four field goals. He connected from distances of 28, 43 and 41 yards in the second quarter and made the longest kick of his career at Utah with a 53-yarder in the third.

When things got tight down the stretch, the All-American had a 50-yard punt that wasn't returned to bury Michigan deep in its own territory.

Whittingham said another key was the play of the offensive line against the Wolverines' experienced defensive front.

"To me that was the most critical match-up in the game," he explained. "I think our guys held their own."

The biggest difference-maker, however, was Utah's defense. Whittingham said their speed was a factor in slowing Michigan down.

The Wolverines used two inexperienced quarterbacks in Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet, and neither reached 100 yards passing or had more than two yards rushing.

"The kids played extremely tough," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "I didn't sense any fatigue at all."

Paul Kruger led the Utes with nine tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Nai Fotu matched the latter and was one of five Utah defenders to make a tackle-for-loss and one of three with a sack. Greg Newman recovered a fumble and Smith picked off a pass.

"I think we just stuck to the game plan and came out real aggressive and flying around," Kruger said. "A lot of things went well for us and a lot of things didn't. I think we responded to opposition and it was just a great day for us."

It wasn't perfect. The Utes had just 28 yards of offense in the second half, turned the ball over three times by game's end and had a punt and PAT blocked.

The mistakes helped set up an 8-yard scoring strike from Sheridan to Michael Shaw that gave Michigan an early 7-0 lead. Utah responded with an 8-yard touchdown run by Corbin Louks, but trailed 7-6 when the extra point was deflected.

The Utes eventually gained control of the game and held a comfortable lead until the final minutes.

Michigan began its late rally by blocking a punt and scoring a play later on a 33-yard touchdown toss from Threet to Junior Hemingway.

Less than three minutes passed before the Wolverines added a 3-yard run by Sam McGuffie, capping a drive that began by recovering a Utah fumble on the 31-yard line.

An ensuing two-point conversion attempt, which would have tied the game, failed when Threet's attempt to connect with receiver Toney Cleamons near the back of the end zone was incomplete.

The Wolverines never got another chance to erase the deficit. Sakoda's punting and Utah's defense stuffed them inside their own 35 the rest of the way to preserve the victory.

And a big one at that.

"For me personally, this is our biggest win since Coach Whit has been the coach here — huge venue, huge task," Johnson said. "We accepted that challenge. We came out, played well and got a win."


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