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Published: Friday, 8/1/2008

Utah won't be easy test for Michigan

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF

A hypothetical question, coach.

Rich Rodriguez, say your Michigan Wolverines had to open the 2008 season today against the Utah Utes.

Not in a few weeks on Aug. 30, with time to build cohesion between your young Wolverines squad and your coaching staff, but today. How's 3:30 p.m. sound?

"I can't sleep now. You want me to think about that question?" Rodriguez said recently.

The Wolverines scheduled opponents for this season long before Rodriguez took over at Michigan. Still, no one did him any favors by making Utah Rodriguez's first opponent as the Wolverines' coach.

Utah isn't Appalachian State, and everyone knows how last year's opener turned out.

The Utes went 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the Mountain West Conference last season, finishing with a 35-32 triumph over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Some key players return for the Utes, including quarterback Brian Johnson and running back Darrell Mack, whose 1,204 rushing yards last season were the third-most in school history.

Four starters from Utah's offensive line are also back, as is Poinsettia Bowl most valuable player, safety Steve Tate.

Utes coach Kyle Whittingham will lead this core group into Michigan Stadium to face a Rodriguez team running its spread-option offense against an opponent for the first time.

"It's a difficult game because of who they are, who they've got coming back," Rodriguez said. "Everyone always says,

'Oh, you want to open up with a good team.' Not if you're a young team, you don't. I'd rather open up with somebody bad. Are you kidding me? I'll be honest. We're opening up with somebody really good."

This is not to say Rodriguez can't or won't win his first game on UM's sidelines. The fact is, the Wolverines don't have to play today and beginning Monday will have 29 practices to settle on a quarterback and fine tune a defense that is returning seven starters.

There likely isn't a coach in the history of college football who wasn't dying to win his first game, nor a team that didn't want to help him do it.

But the feeling is perhaps even more intense for Rodriguez and the Wolverines, who haven't exactly had an easy go of things since Rodriguez's arrival in December.

From Justin Boren transferring to Ohio State and questioning UM's "family values" to an ugly $4 million lawsuit Rodriguez settled with West Virginia (thanks to a $2.5 million payment from UM), some fans and alumni are already uncomfortable with the negative attention the program has received. And then there's the issue of four consecutive losses to Ohio State, which is no fault of Rodriguez but a sore spot nonetheless.

"If the coach is worried about what the fans are thinking, he'll wind up sitting with them," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and his players say they don't have time to worry about the recent past.

"I think our focus needs to be right now on getting Michigan better," Rodriguez said. "We have so much on our plate as coaches and players that I can't even think about Utah yet. Two weeks into camp I will be, though."



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