The Michigan Wolverines will spend the offseason wondering what might have been in an incredible Orange Bowl had they not played so poorly in the opening quarter.
Florida State dominated early, but then needed a late rally to beat the Wolverines 33-32 Friday night in a wild game played at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Michigan QB Wilton Speight got rolling in the fourth quarter, leading the Wolverines to 15 points in less than four minutes for their first lead in the game at 30-27 with 1 minute, 57 seconds to play. In the game’s first three-plus quarters, the Wolverines had put up 15 points on 3 field goals and a defensive touchdown.
Speight got things going with an 8-yard touchdown pass to FB Khalid Hill with 5:22 remaining. After a 3-and-out for Florida State, Michigan went right down the field to take the lead. Speight had a key scramble for 17 yards on a third-and-5 from the Florida State 44-yard line, then Chris Evans capped it with a 30-yard touchdown run two plays later.
Florida State (10-3) came right back though, as freshman Keith Gavin hesitated in the end zone but then returned the ensuing kick 66 yards to the Michigan 34. On third-and-9 at the 12-yard line, Deondre Francois hit Nyqwan Murray with a perfect pass just over the outstretched hands of Michigan star CB Jourdan Lewis for a touchdown with 36 seconds left.
If that didn’t make this ending crazy enough, Florida State’s extra-point attempt was blocked and Josh Metellus returned it 98 yards for 2 points to cut the lead to one. Michigan (10-3) had one last drive but Speight’s fourth-down pass was intercepted with 16 seconds left.
Michigan was off to a rough start before the opening kick, as versatile star Jabrill Peppers was a late scratch, going through pregame warmups before being ruled out because of a hamstring injury. Senior TE Jake Butt left the game with an apparent leg injury in the first half and did not return.
The Seminoles jumped out to a 17-3 in the first quarter, marching down the field with ease before Dalvin Cook took in it from 2 yards out on their first drive, then Francois hitting Murray for a 92-yard touchdown pass on a busted coverage by Michigan’s secondary after the teams traded field goals.
Michigan’s only positive in the quarter was a 61-yard punt by Kenny Allen, which Murray muffed and the Wolverines recovered on Florida State’s 1-yard line. Michigan couldn’t punch it in and had to settle for a field goal, which became a theme as the game progressed.
The Wolverines reached the red zone three times in the first three quarters, but settled for field goals each time. Michigan’s first touchdown came from LB Mike McCray, who intercepted a Francois pass and returned it 14 yards for a score in the final minute of the third quarter.
Michigan benefitted from several Florida State mistakes. Beyond the muffed punt and McCray’s pick-6, the Wolverines also had excellent field position in the fourth quarter after Trey Marshall was ejected for targeting on a punt that Lewis fielded near midfield.
Five things we learned
1. It didn’t look it in the first quarter, but Michigan’s defense cemented its status as one of the best in the nation. From the end of the first quarter until one minute into the fourth quarter, Michigan held Florida to 55 total yards. The Seminoles ran nine plays and picked up no first downs in the third quarter. Francois is going to be a great quarterback for Florida State, but at one point he missed 14 of 16 passes and completed 9 of 27 in the game.
2. Speight struggled early with his accuracy, thanks in part to an intense Florida State pass rush. His shoulder might still not be 100-percent healthy, either. He might have been rusty playing in just his second game in nearly seven weeks. Speight looked much better in the fourth quarter, though, which should be an encouraging sign for next season.
3. The biggest problem for Michigan since starting the season 9-0 has been a downturn in play from the offensive line. Iowa and Ohio State (and Indiana for a long stretch) kept Michigan’s offense from controlling the game with a steady diet of rushing the ball. Florida State dominated the line of scrimmage when the Wolverines had the ball, at least until late in the fourth quarter. The Seminoles’ offense was so bad after the first quarter, however, that it helped Michigan wear down Florida State’s defense.
4. Not having Peppers was a problem, but not being able to block DeMarcus Walker in the first half was a bigger one. Walker is one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Michigan really struggled when Walker, typically an end, slid inside and attacked the Wolverines’ interior linemen on passing downs. Walker had 4 of Florida State’s 15 tackles for loss.
5. Losing a player like Butt is tough for any program to deal with, but the Wolverines had a chance to see what their future looks like at the position after Butt left the game. Tyrone Wheatley Jr.’s only catch went for 8 yards and a first down, while surprising junior Ian Bunting more than doubled his reception total for the season with 3 catches for a team-high 40 yards. Two of Bunting’s catches went first downs, as well, including a catch on fourth-and-4. Those two, plus talented freshman Devin Asiasi, will be tasked with replacing Butt. Hill looked like he could be an option, as well, when he split out wide and then collected the touchdown pass from Speight.
It has to be the kick return by Gavin. He wasn’t even supposed to bring the ball out of the end zone, but he broke a tackle and set up the game-winning touchdown with a dazzling 66-yard return. Here are a couple other mind-boggling stats about the play:
- It was the first touch — of Gavin’s career.
- It was Allen’s only kickoff of the game that did not result in a touchback.
The toughest player for Michigan to replace next season might not be Peppers, but the other special teams ace. Allen has been fantastic at helping the Wolverines win the field position battle all season as a punter and solid as a kicker. This was a supreme performance. Florida State started four drives at its own 20-yard line or worse after Allen punts, and Michigan collected 3 points after Murray’s fumble inside the 5.
Did Peppers miss his final game in a Wolverines uniform? He hasn’t announced a decision yet about entering the 2017 NFL Draft or returning for a senior season. Projected as a top-5 pick by some experts, it would be a huge upset if he decides to stay. At least C/OT Mason Cole has said he will return, which is a big boost for the offensive line.
Florida State out-gained Michigan 201-22 in the first quarter. The Wolverines allowed less than 200 yards in four straight October games.
What it means
Michigan’s team is going to look very different next season, and it’s never a good idea to draw too many conclusions about the following season based on a bowl game. As long as Jim Harbaugh stays in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines will be fine in 2017, and especially in the years after that.