TAMPA, Fla. — In the immediate moments after Michigan’s 26-19 loss to South Carolina, one of the Wolverines’ younger players struggled to find a reason why they squandered a 16-point lead in the Outback Bowl.
“I’m not really sure what the problem is,” linebacker/viper Khaleke Hudson said. “I just try to do what I’m supposed to do and the defense, we all do what we’re supposed to do, and the offense, they do what they’re supposed to do, too. I’m not really sure, though, what’s happening or what’s going on.”
That should be a cause for concern, that Michigan can’t identify specifically why it squandered a double-digit lead in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Michigan (8-5) ended the season on a three-game losing streak, its first since the 2014 season. In the last two seasons, Michigan has struggled to put away games that could have been signature wins.
The Wolverines have squandered leads in the last two years against Ohio State, lost a 2-point lead at Iowa in the fourth quarter that ultimately cost them a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff, and lost a 32-27 lead to Florida State six weeks later in the final minute of the Orange Bowl.
Now, Michigan searches for some resolution as it heads into the offseason. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst finally became the voice of reason, and offered some insight as to why this team can’t win the big ones.
“Just trying to fix those little things,” Hurst said. “Just trying to take that extra step. That’s one of the things, with a younger team, you have those little mistakes. And that showed this year. I’m looking forward to next year. I think we’ll cut out those little mistakes that were made and be able to put the foot on the gas at the right time.”
Michigan squandered a 19-3 lead in the second half against South Carolina. It turned the ball over 5 times: 2 interceptions and 3 fumbles. Of its five trips to the red zone, only one produced a touchdown.
Michigan played into the hands of a South Carolina defense that labeled Michigan as “predictable.” South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw noticed a change in Michigan’s demeanor in the second half.
“You could tell their whole body language,” Kinlaw said. “The body language changed a whole lot. I could tell they were kind of giving up at the end right there.
“Just the speed they were playing at, the power at the beginning. They were coming off the ball pretty good. Towards the end, I could tell they were giving up.”
If it was that obvious to the Gamecocks, it had to be obvious to so many others.
But Hurst, a likely first-round draft pick, found a glimmer of hope as he prepares to head to the pros. His wisdom might provide teammates with some immediate clarity.
“A year of learning, a year of just understanding more of what the offense is doing and what the defense is trying to do. You don’t second-guess yourself when you’re running routes or running a play or blocking. All those guys get another year together to get to know each other better and get to connect more.
“That’s such a big difference between a younger team and an older team. That’s where we felt last year, that we were an older team. And that’s what this team is going to feel next year when they’ve gained a year of experience.”
SEC Country’s Hale McGranahan contributed to this report.