Utes gear up to face first real challenge of the season in the “Big House”

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After a 12-day hiatus, the Utes are hungry to finally face the storied Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

The football gods seem to have blessed Utah in this first quarter of their schedule. After thoroughly dispatching Idaho State and Fresno State, the Utes got a bye week to rest up before they take their confidence and swagger into the daunting arena that is the “Big House.” Utah understands how important this game is in terms of returning to the college football postseason, but that’s not stopping them from admiring the opportunity they have to take on the maize and blue.

“I’ve been watching Michigan ever since I was little,” said junior running back Devontae Booker. “It’s going to be really nice for me to play a big game against [Michigan] and be in that stadium, period.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said his team is excited to play one of the most storied programs in college football. That said, he knows how difficult it’s going to be to go into the “Big House” and steal a win from the home team.

“I don’t think it’s a secret, you have to prepare well through the week,” Whittingham said. “We don’t think there are any flaws in our approach, we just got to play better and coach better.”

The Utes seem to be taking that lesson to heart as Whittingham said Tuesday’s practice was “one of the best ones since the start of the season.”

Surely confidence offers some explanation as to the improved practices, and the Utes should be brimming with it. Not only are they taking their new high-octane offense (which is now rested and healthy) into a game against a team that has struggled against good passing games, but they are also bringing with them one of their best defenders in linebacker Gionni Paul, who missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury.

Paul is a Miami (Fla.) transfer who redshirted all of last season and was the favorite to start at middle linebacker for the Utes this season until he injured his foot in spring ball. Now Paul returns with impeccable timing, since previous starter Jason Whittingham went down with a potentially long-term wrist injury.

Whittingham and defensive captain Brian Blechen both called Paul an extremely instinctive player who knows where to be in order to make plays. Whittingham seemed relieved Paul is able to go at this critical juncture early in the season.

“He’s showing no ill-effects so far,” Whittingham said. “He’s coming at a good time. We need him desperately to play some good football for us right now.”

Though the Utes have faced some injuries, their struggles to stay healthy pale in comparison to what Michigan has had to endure.

It is still unclear whether Michigan’s leading receiver Devin Funchess will play Saturday after sitting out their previous game against Miami (Ohio) with a leg injury suffered against Notre Dame. Funchess leads the team in receptions (16), yards (202) and touchdowns (3), making him one of the offensive spark plugs of the Wolverines.

Other questionable starters for Michigan include safety Jarrod Wilson, linebacker Desmond Morgan, cornerback Raymon Taylor and tight end Khalid Hill.

Overall this game is extremely important for both teams.

The Utes will be looking to go 3-0 in non-conference play before they start their rigorous slate of Pac-12 games. Getting halfway to a bowl-clinching sixth win would be huge for the Utes, especially since the previous Pac-12 South co-favorites UCLA and USC have looked vulnerable thus far in their campaigns.

The Wolverines are trying to avoid their second loss in four games. Like the Utes, their two wins have come against inferior opponents, but their lone loss came at a great expense, getting shutout by their Midwestern rival in Notre Dame before the series ended for the foreseeable future. A loss in this game could prove costly to not only the Wolverines, but also head coach Brady Hoke (who is currently in the hot seat at Michigan) as well as the Big 10 conference in general.

With both teams attempting to show they are among the nation’s elite, Saturday’s clash in Ann Arbor should be a treat to watch.

Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MT and will be nationally broadcast on ABC and ESPN2.

t.chappell@chronicle.utah.edu

@TalonChappell

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