For Michigan, the latter proved to be the most important factor. In order to move towards the collegiate football elite (which rests in the Southeastern Conference by almost unanimous agreement), you have to play one of that conference’s better team to use as a measuring stick.
Michigan did just that on New Year’s Day, coming up five points and 11 seconds short, falling 33-28 in the Outback Bowl (bloomin’ onions for everyone!). The Wolverines end the season at 8-5, losing all five games away from Michigan Stadium, in what could (but shouldn’t) be labeled as a sophomore jinx for Head Coach Brady Hoke.
It took a last-second touchdown strike by SC, when UM was caught with the wrong (slower) personnel (Jordan Kovacs) on one of the faster Gamecock receivers (Bruce Ellington) for the winning 32-yard play with 11 seconds left. But that actually was the game in a nutshell; South Carolina won via the big play, utilizing its overwhelming speed advantage, to literally run away from the Wolverine defenders five different times. Michigan surrendered eight plays of more than 31 yards on the afternoon, including an early back-breaking 66-yard touchdown punt return by the appropriately named Ace Sanders (can you say NFL first-rounder?).
The clearest advantage (other than an amazing height differential between Michigan’s offensive line and SC’s defensive front) was the quickness and flat-out drag-racing speed possessed by the Carolina receivers and secondary personnel. In fact, that remains the biggest single advantage that almost EVERY SEC schools has over Big Ten squads – the SEC is often a track meet on a football field and the Big Ten still plays plodding scrum ball in the center of the field.
For the Big Ten Conference, its lack of respect against other gridiron powerhouses (mainly the SEC) is still being well-earned. Only Northwestern (beating a second-tier SEC team in Mississippi State) and Michigan State (on a last-second field goal over TCU) earned victories. Georgia throttled Nebraska and Wisconsin seemed unable to handle Stanford.
Actually, Michigan played a much better game against a much better team in South Carolina (yes, Virginia, the Gamecocks WERE the better team with the better personnel, especially on defense where the Wolverines might never play a harder-hitting squad than that).
First, before we get to real pertinent stuff, can we ALL agree on one future absolute: stop SCREWING with the Wolverines’ uniforms! No one watching in television, or in the one-third empty stands at Raymond James Stadium, could see any of the Michigan players’ numbers. All these “special event” uniforms are NOT to commemorate playing in the game; it’s all about merchandizing and it’s bordering on ridiculous (or looking like a drag queen with multiple costume changes).
Credit must go to the Wolverine offense for clawing its way back into the game and snatching the lead twice in the second half (both times coming on Devin Gardner passes to Jeremy Gallon, UM’s best player on the field). It was a shame when the defense, obviously tired from chasing the much quicker Gamecocks, simply couldn’t stop the final SC scoring drive. It was a great effort, but it came up short.
But why? Again, the deficiency in the Michigan running game was made even more stark than ever; Michigan’s leading ground gainer was senior Denard Robinson, playing in this final UM game, with 23 carries for 100 yards. Although UM did not win the game, Robinson went out a “winner,” proving once and for all his unbelievable value that must be replaced (and which will take 3-4 players to do so).
He actually spent more time as a halfback than under center, which is NOT what was needed for Michigan’s future. Between Robinson and Gardner (who is NOT a runner and must improve as a scrambler), they consumed 35 of the 45 Michigan carries (not counting the two fake field goal runs for first downs).
Senior Vincent Smith, playing his final time as a Wolverine (thank God!) and freshman Justice Hayes had all of 8 rushes for 6 yards. Thomas Rawls, Stephen Hopkins or anyone else listed in the Michigan backfield were MIA. Coach Hoke will enter the 2013 season totally dependent on whoever shines in spring practice, wondering if an incoming freshman will step up to the challenge or just how quickly soon-to-be Fitzgerald Toussaint can rehab from his broken leg. It should keep him up for several nights … worrying.
Second, while South Carolina practiced the kind of thunder-and-lightning attack Head Coach Steve Spurrier is famous for, Michigan moved more like a tortoise against the hare. The Wolverines attempted more passes (by one) but averaged less on every statistical comparison – less yards per rushing attempt, less per passing attempt and less per completion (not to mention less yardage per attempt in the return game). The long-distance “vertical” game was simply non-existent for Michigan because … for most of the season, the longest gains were mainly Robinson’s scampers through opposing defenses.
On the plus side, Hoke got to see future Wolverine stars on defense who had populated much of the second-and third-string positions of the weekly depth chart. Names such as James Ross III, Brennen Beyer, Ondre Pipkins and Joe Bolden (all freshmen except for Beyer) were in the thick of the action more often than some of the outgoing seniors they were replacing. Out of the eight leading tacklers for UM, seven were non-seniors (and tackle Will Campbell, in his last game, never made the stat sheet).
Running back by committee in 2013 will not work; Michigan needs someone with the speed to reach the corner before the opposition and blow past them for long runs. UM also needs a speed burner to stretch defending secondary past the point of breakage; as well as secondary personnel who can run step-for-step with the kind of speed coaches like Urban Meyer at Ohio State will be attempting to recruit from his old stomping grounds in Florida.
The lesson learned for a fine game in Tampa was simple: speed kills and it’s time for Michigan to acquire some of that for itself.