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ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Every game is key to a successful season. It’s why coaches rattle off the same cliche that they’re just focusing on the game ahead of them and not another one on the schedule.
Although Utah is accustomed to playing storied programs on a near-weekly basis, playing at the Big House is a big deal, particularly when Utah is trying to prove its value as a newly included Power 5 member and after missing the postseason in back-to-back seasons.
With two weeks to prepare for Michigan, Utah felt it was in a place where it could succeed and come away as victors, taking one step closer to bowl eligibility.
“All week, we knew this was going to be our night,” senior safety Brian Blechen said. “We practiced like there was no other option and tonight, the preparation paid off.”
“We prepared our butts off,” said linebacker Jared Norris, who finished with nine tackles and two sacks. “We had two weeks to prepare for this game. This is a big game. It's a Big Ten team that was ranked in the top 25 at the beginning of the season.”
Utah’s defense was a force the Michigan offense struggled to penetrate and break all game. From the front seven to the secondary, Utah’s defense didn’t bend much, to Michigan’s frustration. As a result, Utah did not allow the Wolverines inside the red zone all game and held them to three points — seven points came on a pick-six inside Utah’s 10-yard line.
“We're not a bend-but-don't-break defense, but when you give up a little bit — they were just at 300, 308 yards — that's a pretty good afternoon for your defense,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The pass defense was much improved. They were less than 50 percent throwing the football in completion percentage. We had three picks and (allowed) no touchdowns. That was great to see the pass defense step up.”
Linebacker Gionni Paul, who got his first start in a Utah uniform after suffering an ankle injury in spring camp, was one of the biggest impact players on the defense. While his lack of conditioning was questioned prior to the game as a result of his injury, Paul looked to be in midseason form, disrupting Michigan’s several attempts to get positive yards on offense.
All week, we knew this was going to be our night. We practiced like there was no other option and tonight, the preparation paid off.
Paul lead the team with 14 tackles and was instrumental in two Michigan turnovers — an interception in the fourth quarter, followed up by a fumble recovery after a two-hour rain delay postponed the game.
“We focused mainly on making turnovers as a defense and playing fast and physical,” Paul said. “We worked on ball drills, interception drills, making forced fumbles, and it paid off in the game.”
“There's still, I'm sure, mistakes that we've gotta clean up,” Whittingham said. “But having Gionni in there, he's a playmaker, and that's exactly what he does in practice. He came away with an interception. He's the one that came up with that fumble recovery at the end there. He has a knack for turning the ball over. That's exactly what this defense needs.”
The defense needed Paul and its several other talented, impactful players with a linebacking unit that is depleted in depth due to injuries — Jason Whittingham was injured against Fresno State and Jacoby Hale is still recovering from an ACL and MCL injury in spring — and a secondary that has shifted around several players in the cornerback position.
“(Our) defense played their tails off,” Whittingham added. “I'm very proud of the defensive effort.”
Special teams, too, was instrumental in giving Utah the needed boost to come away with a victory. Senior Kaelin Clay proved once again that teams should fear punt or kickoff returns. And with punter Tom Hackett and place-kicker Andy Phillips rounding out the special teams unit, teams have more to worry about than just a physical defense and a quick-moving offense.
Utah’s offense did have its moments of struggle moving the ball, but Michigan’s defense, too, was physical and lived up to its then-top 25 overall defensive ranking. Despite Michigan’s effort, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson completed 70 percent of his passes, going 14-of-20 for 172 yards and one touchdown.
Utah will have another chance to prove itself as it opens up Pac-12 play Saturday against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Cougars gave No. 2 Oregon a scare last Saturday, losing by seven in the final minutes of the game.