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Saturday, August 30, 2008
Michigan needs to get creative

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A buzz went through the crowd on the first offensive play of the Rich Rodriguez era, as Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan deftly shuffled the ball to Martavious Odoms cutting across the field.

As the fans howled, Odoms gained three yards. No cloud of dust could be spotted from the press box, but it might as well have been there.

As far as creativity went, the first play was about as good as it got for Michigan on Saturday. So were the results.

To call the Wolverines' offense vanilla would be an insult to the term. Rodriguez came to Michigan as an offensive innovator, but his playbook might as well as been a pamphlet against Utah.

"We ran three different run schemes, that's it," Rodriguez said, "and then run maybe eight or nine different route patterns. We had to keep it simple. We don't want to confuse the young guys. We're probably as simple as we could ever be right now. At some point, we've got to add more."

Minimalism nearly helped Michigan rally past Utah, but ultimately an offense that needed to play beyond its means fell short. Hands on knees, Rodriguez watched the clock expire as Utah celebrated a 25-23 win and Michigan dropped back-to-back season openers for the first time since 1989-90.

The margin of defeat was the same and the second-half rally vaguely resembled last year's surge against Appalachian State. But there was no sense of shock on Saturday. Utah came in loaded with experience and eyeing a BCS bowl run. Many envisioned a Utes win, including the guys wearing red and white.

"You can't come in here to lose," quarterback Brian Johnson said.

Neither did Michigan, but its coaches entered the game with more curiosity than confidence.

As previously indicated, Rodriguez played two quarterbacks, substituting redshirt freshman Steven Threet for struggling starting Nick Sheridan early in the third quarter. Running back Carlos Brown, who played quarterback in high school, also took a snap. Rodriguez played four running backs and rotated plenty of wide receivers. But the glut of personnel didn't translate into production.

Odoms led Michigan with five catches -- for seven yards. Freshman running back Sam McGuffie led Michigan with eight carries -- for eight yards.

"When we released the depth charts with 'OR's' by a lot of [positions], that was for a reason," offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. "We didn't just to keep you guys wondering. There's really some 'OR's,' and that's going to play itself out."

Rodriguez declined to speculate on his quarterback situation for next week, but Threet made a decent case for starting consideration. The Georgia Tech transfer, making his first collegiate appearance, tossed a 33-yard touchdown to Junior Hemmingway with 8:42 left.

Threet didn't force many throws and converted two Utah miscues into touchdowns, though he didn't dazzle on a day when Michigan needed a little more pizzazz.

"He was seeing the field pretty well," Rodriguez said. "There's always things every player could take back, but he seemed pretty confident for the first time out there."

Sheridan's performance in the final few preseason scrimmages earned him the starting nod, but the former walk-on struggled to get on track. He executed short, safe routes but forced too many throws and was pulled after the offense committed two turnovers.

"Every loss is very disappointing here at Michigan," Sheridan said. "You're expected to win 'em all, and that will never change. So we've got to get better."

More than 108,000 people entered a construction site Saturday as steel beams towered above the east and west sides of Michigan Stadium, but the most building might take place on the field. Rodriguez publicly had taken a pardon-our-dust position with his offense, recognizing the personnel losses and the novices coming in.

But even the coach was surprised by the multitude of mistakes, particularly in the middle two quarters, as hopelessness began to set in. Michigan racked up just 102 first-half yards and failed to record a first down on its first three possessions of the second half.

This wasn't quite Notre Dame of 2007, but for a while, Michigan didn't seem too far off.

"I was hoping it would be less [mistakes)," said Rodriguez, the first Michigan coach to drop his home opener since Bump Elliott in 1959. "There was more than I was hoping, more made in the game than in recent practices, but I guess you should expect that. Those guys over there aren't going to make it easy on us."

Those "guys" dominated the first half at both ends and should have been up much more than 12 points at the break. Johnson ripped apart Michigan's secondary for 253 passing yards, and the defense held the Wolverines to four net rushing yards in the half.

All-American specialist Louie Sakoda had a busy day, kicking four field goals and launching several booming punts. He also had a punt and an extra-point attempt blocked but never lost his composure.

"The special teams' game has proven more and more vital over the years," Sakoda said. "Coaches are going out, recruiting more heavily now and I'm glad I could come in here and prove myself."

Running back Matt Asiata admitted panic set in as Michigan rallied behind a revitalized defense, which recorded six sacks and shut down Johnson after halftime. But the experience differential loomed large down the stretch.

"We worked so hard since January," Asiata said. "It's a dream come true, winning in the Big House. I'm just speechless."

Michigan still plans to have a say this season, and the defense certainly looked promising after a poor start. But how fast can the offense catch up?

"You have to put enough in to have a chance against certain defenses and yet not confuse the young guys," Rodriguez said.

"There's ways to expand it," Threet said. "When the game plan calls for it, that's what we'll do."

Moments later, Threet left the Crisler Arena interview room, draped a white towel over his head and alone, unnoticed, away from the stadium. It was an ordinary exit, seemingly too ordinary for a Michigan quarterback.

But for now, ordinary will have to suffice at Michigan.