Despite a struggling offense that managed just ten first downs and fewer than 170 yards through two-plus quarters, Michigan had nonetheless built a 16-3 second-half lead over South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. And with a first-and-goal from the Gamecock nine-yard line midway through the third quarter, Michigan appeared poised to apply the knockout punch that would put the game out of reach. However, in a turn that was emblematic of the game in particular and the season in general, Michigan couldn’t capitalize, as Karan Higdon fumbled at the five-yard line to kill the drive. Michigan’s defense had been suffocating to that point, holding the South Carolina offense to a lone field goal and fewer than 100 yards through nearly three quarters. Had Michigan been able to punch the ball into the end zone, it’s not a stretch to imagine the Gamecocks succumbing to the pressure. However, as coach Jim Harbaugh lamented in the post-game press conference, as has been the case much of the season, the Wolverines simply weren’t able to apply the knockout blow.
After the fumble, Michigan’s defense held and Quinn Nordin added his fourth field goal of the day, giving the Wolverines a 19-3 lead. But from there it was all downhill for the Wolverines. In a game plagued by mistakes and turnovers, perhaps the biggest of each set the collapse in motion, as facing a third-and-one from inside its own red zone, still holding a 19-9 lead, Michigan inexplicably decided to give tight end Sean McKeon his first career carry. Not surprisingly, the play resulted in a turnover, as Peters was unable to complete the handoff. Harbaugh explained the play as one in which the wrong personnel was on the field, and for his part, Peters said he was surprised to see McKeon in the backfield. But the show – and the play – went on, and the game began to unravel for the Wolverines.
Suddenly a defense that had been dominant for two-and-a-half quarters couldn’t get off the field, as South Carolina quarterback and game MVP Jake Bentley came up with big play after big play and third-down conversion after third-down conversion to turn the tide. Suddenly, almost inconceivably, a South Carolina team that had mustered only three first downs and fewer than 100 yards through nearly three quarters, turned a 16-point deficit into a four point lead, requiring just 13 offensive plays to do so.
And once the Gamecocks took the lead, it was their defense that became suffocating.
Peters engineered an eight-play, 75-yard drive in response to losing the lead, but facing a third-and-goal from the five-yard line, Peters made an ill-advised throw that resulted in an interception, ending Michigan’s last, best chance at victory. From there the wheels really came off for the Wolverines, as they committed two more turnovers, giving them a preposterous five in the second half. Michigan’s defense, so good for so much of the game, eventually wilted under the pressure of having to do it all by itself, and surrendered 23 unanswered points, as South Carolina ultimately prevailed 26-19.
This was obviously not the way Michigan wanted to end its season, committing five second-half turnovers and squandering a 19-3 second half lead is not exactly ending the season on a high note. But beyond that, what does Michigan’s performance say about next year? About the future of the program?
Michigan’s meltdown against South Carolina was precipitated by the same factors that have plagued the Wolverines throughout the season. Chiefly, the inability to generate a consistent running game, the failure to get key stops on defense and key conversions on offense and committing terrible turnovers at the worst times.
Poor quarterback play has also been an issue for the Wolverines all season, and it too, continued. If the Outback Bowl was to be an audition of sorts for Peters, an opportunity for him to cement his hold on the starting quarterback job for next year, consider that job wide open. Harbaugh said after the game that he didn’t attach a lot of importance to bowl performances in regard to next season’s position battles, but Peters’ performance was far from inspiring.
Granted, he had no ground game on which to lean, was without his most reliable receiver in Grant Perry and his pass protection was spotty, but Peters spent the majority of the day staring down receivers, settling for short, dump-off passes and generally looking indecisive. And when the game was truly on the line, Peters was rarely even close to connecting with his receivers. Peters certainly wasn’t solely responsible for the game’s outcome, and it should be noted that the Wolverines were down three starting offensive linemen by game’s end, a daunting obstacle for any team to overcome, but Peters certainly didn’t do much to suggest that he’s got the starting role for next year locked down.
But looking at the bigger picture, what did Michigan’s performance say about next season’s Wolverines? Michigan will return an abundance of talent, with as many as 17 starters returning, but is there reason to believe that Michigan’s two biggest shortcomings in 2017, offensive line and quarterback play, will be appreciably better in 2018?
Michigan loses two starters up front, including its best lineman, with no obvious answers for replacements - or for who will play tackle, for that matter. And whoever ends up under center for Michigan, whether it’s Peters, Dylan McCaffrey or Shea Patterson, the Wolverines will essentially be relying on an untested, first-year starter (in their system) at the sport’s most important position. Again.
After the game, Harbaugh told his team that there are better days ahead. But how much better? And how much further ahead?