BURBANK, California – Utah’s 2015 season opener ranks among the program’s biggest games of the last half-decade, if not longer, with Michigan visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium for the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh Era.
Michigan’s hire of the Wolverine alum, former Orange Bowl champion and Super Bowl participant and all-around fiery character was perhaps the story of this offseason. Fittingly, his first game on the Michigan sidelines opens the 2015 season with a Thursday night, national telecast.
For as much attention as Harbaugh and Michigan are garnering, overlooking Utah’s nine-win and Top 25 finish a season ago might be all too easy. The perennial underdogs have an opportunity to do what they’ve done oh-so many times before and force their way into the spotlight.
Utah running back Devontae Booker leads that charge in Week 1.
Booker, the Utes’ preseason Heisman candidate running back, hadn’t yet broken out as the team’s primary weapon when Utah visited Michigan last September. Still, he has fond memories of visiting The Big House for a 26-10 win that, frankly, was more lopsided than the score might indicate.
“Michigan last year, people were like, ‘oh it’s loud: 110,000 [capacity],'” he said. “But honestly, it wasn’t loud at all. We made some big plays against them and they shut it up real quick.”
Booker said the loudest venue he played in last season was the Rose Bowl, where Utah scored one of its three signature wins a season ago. In addition to UCLA and Michigan, the Utes also beat USC for their sole, high-profile win at home.
Rice-Eccles Stadium may not be nearly as spacious as the Rose Bowl or Big House — with a capacity of just under 46,000, it’s less than half the size of either venue — but it’s known for being intimated, thanks to the Mighty Utah Student Section.
The MUSS made its presence known in each of Utah’s two, marquee wins the past two seasons: its 2013 upset of conference champion Stanford, and last year’s Top 20 showdown with USC.
Booker said the free-for-all on the field following the USC game was wild.
“[The students] were trying to rip jerseys off. It was crazy,” he said. “Everyone running around, climbing on the goal post.”
With Michigan coming off a disappointing 5-7 2014, the atmosphere might not be as electric — were it not for the new life Harbaugh’s breathing into the program.
“They’re no cupcake opponent,” Booker said. The 2014 installment may have seen Utah dominate, but the Utes’ star running back is prepared for an entirely new look.
“They’ve got a chip on their shoulder, just like we do, so it’s going to be a hard-fought game — especially with Coach Harbaugh coming in with their staff,” he said.