ANN ARBOR, Mich. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Saturday's 25-23 victory over Michigan in the Big House was "no surprise." He emphasized it in his postgame remarks to the team.
The Utes expected to prevail.
And though they did, it wasn't easy.
"Coach Whittingham always talks about responding to opposition well," Utah defensive end Paul Kruger said. "And I think we did that today."
After playing well on both sides of the ball in building a 25-10 lead over the first three quarters, the Utes had to hang on down the stretch. A blocked punt and a fumble set up Michigan touchdowns in a span of just over two minutes midway through the fourth quarter to close the gap. The Wolverines tried to pull even with a two-point conversion on the second score, but the attempt failed.
A pair of lengthy punts by Louie Sakoda and effectiveness on defense kept Michigan from reaching Utah territory again. The Wolverines' final three drives ended with a punt, a turnover on downs and the final horn.
"I wish we could have kept it that way the whole game," Kruger said of the Utes' early success. "We didn't. But we responded well."
Overall, he added, they did what was needed and everything worked out.
Utah's defense forced three turnovers (two fumbles, one interception) in the game and held Michigan to 203 yards of total offense and 11 first downs. The Wolverines, who wound up converting on just 3-of-14 in third-down situations, struggled in their debut with new coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.
Over the first two quarters, Michigan had only 102 yards and four first downs. By comparison, Utah's offense netted 313 yards and 14 first downs before the break while building a 22-10 advantage.
Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen acknowledged it was a fun half. However, he wasn't surprised Michigan eventually made a run.
"You know when you play against these caliber of athletes in this situation they're going to keep fighting until the end," Andersen said. "It's a great learning tool. Thank goodness we were able to finish the drill at the end of the day and make some plays on 'D' and get out of here."
In the fourth quarter, he joked that it seemed like the scoreboard operator was putting time on the clock instead of letting it tick off.
Utah's offense can relate. After scoring on five of their first six drives, the Utes were forced to punt six times in the second half. They turned the ball over twice, lost the ball on downs once and managed only a field goal.
"(Michigan) just did a nice job of adjusting and we didn't play with even poise early on in the second half," quarterback Brian Johnson said. "We've just got to find a way to make plays and get that corrected."
Whittingham noted that second-half execution on offense, poor decisionmaking and cutting down penalties (the Utes were flagged 15 times for 137 yards) are some of the things that have to be addressed before Saturday's home opener against UNLV.
"That's on us," he said. "We've got to play cleaner football."
Whittingham urged the Utes to come back Monday ready to work.
"We have to remember last year we beat a big opponent (UCLA, 44-6) and came back the next week and didn't play so well," he explained while making reference to last season's 27-0 setback at UNLV.
On Tuesday, Utah could return to the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since finishing fourth in 2004.
"We've got a chance to put our names on the map," said Johnson, who noted that the win at Michigan was obviously huge for the Utes.
EXTRA POINTS: Sakoda's four field goals equaled a school record he already held with five others ... Utah could return to the national rankings for the first time since 2004 when the polls are released Tuesday ... Defensive tackle Kenape Eliapo suffered a foot injury in the Michigan game and will be out 6-8 weeks ... Safety Robert Johnson (hamstring) and quarterback Corbin Louks (shoulder) are questionable for the UNLV game ... Tight end Brad Clifford is expected to miss his second consecutive game with a hip flexor.
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Utah vs. UNLV
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