MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It will go down on Jim Harbaugh’s two-year record at Michigan as one of his most conservative calls ever.
Kicking an early field goal instead of going for an early touchdown was a peculiar move for a coach — and a program — that have become known for their swagger.
It might also be one of the more costly calls. But following Michigan’s 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Friday at Hard Rock Stadium, no one was willing to disagree with the decision to settle for three points instead of going for 6 and possibly even 7.
Less than 6 minutes into the Orange Bowl, the No. 6 Wolverines (10-3) got a gift from the No. 11 Seminoles (10-3). Returner Nyqwan Murray turned to field Kenny Allen’s long punt, but couldn’t keep a grip on the ball and slipped, then watched as it bobbled in front of him.
Then, Michigan’s Dymonte Thomas covered the football at the Florida State 1-yard line and gave Michigan a chance to tie the game.
Yet when given prime field position, Michigan may have squandered its best path into the end zone. Instead, it left points on the board.
In the three plays on that drive that started one yard from the end zone, the Wolverines got pushed back to the 4, then to the 1. But instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 from an arm’s length, Michigan opted to play it safe and have Allen kick a 19-yard field goal.
What have could have been a 7-7 tie was instead a 7-3 Florida State lead. In a game ultimately decided by one point.
“That’s coach’s call, and I agreed with it,” said Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, who finished 21 of 38 for 163 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. “Just get the points. You want to get the points, get on the board and get to the next series.”
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) December 31, 2016
Simple math: Six — and maybe seven — is greater than three.
The Wolverines literally booted their best chance to take control of a contest that they prepared for and they regarded as a championship game.
On its first three trips to the red zone, Michigan kicked three field goals, including that first field goal that cut Florida State’s lead to 7-3. But that scoring drive should have ended much more substantially. Especially in a high-stakes game. You might have a narrower margin at halftime, instead of facing a 14-point deficit. And still remain within striking distance.
The decision to kick the field goal initially surprised Michigan running back Chris Evans. But …
“Coach Harbaugh knows best,” said Evans, who finished with 49 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries. “We go with our leaders, follow the leaders, do what they tell us to do and then come out.”
A touchdown would have given Michigan near-immediate control of the game in its early goings. Instead, Florida State raced to a 17-3 lead before the end of the first quarter and the Wolverines allowed Dalvin Cook (20 carries for 145 yards, TD) to run roughshod over them in the first half. Cook ran for 70 of his 145 yards in the first half, on 14 carries.
Instead, Michigan was left to launch a valiant comeback — one which saw the Wolverines rally from a 14-point deficit and take a 30-27 lead on Evans’ 30-yard scoring run with 1:57 left in regulation.
Murray, however, redeemed himself by scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 36 seconds left.
In the end, with Josh Metellus scoring two points after Michigan blocked the ensuing PAT attempt, Michigan lost by one point.
And that one play where Michigan decided to play it safe instead of setting the tone against the Seminoles cost them in the end.
By one point.
Look back at that first Michigan scoring drive. Six point — or even seven — is greater than three. You do the math.