By CHRIS ZADOROZNY, Sports Editor
After winning the 2012 Sugar Bowl, the Michigan Wolverines had a less than stellar 2012 season. They finished 8-4, with a matchup set in Tampa against SEC powerhouse, the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Once again, the Big Ten had a big slate of games on New Year’s Day, which for Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has been atrocious.The SEC is the football powerhouse now, and Michigan is on its way back to its dominance, but not quite there just yet.
They are close, though. Even though they fell to the Gamecocks 33-28 in a closer game than many probably expected, they almost won. Yes, it’s a cliche, but they held the Gamecocks to just 17 first downs and only 85 total rushing yards on 17 attempts.
In the end , it was the big plays that hurt the Wolverines. A 56-yard touchdown reception, a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown, a 70-yard reception, a 31-yard touchdown reception, and the game winning, 32-yard touchdown reception.
These five plays were the largest of the game, and unfortunately, missed tackles and blown coverage doomed the Wolverines from the start. The weak and crumbling secondary was blown apart on four of these plays, and surprisingly, wasn’t attacked more by the Gamecock offense.
Without top senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, along with senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne, and punter Will Hagerup, the Wolverines held their own. Early on, it wasn’t looking good, especially for the secondary, but eventually, became decently better throughout the game.
It just wasn’t enough. Even with 11 seconds left in the game, it’s not over until the clock strikes zero. That’s how the game ended though, just like it started. With a big play, a big pass, a touchdown.
Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw started the game, but didn’t finish it, he was hurt on the final drive of the game. He threw two of South Carolina’s touchdowns. The first one, was a 56-yard pass to Damiere Byrd, four plays into the game.
Michigan followed that drive up with a Devin Gardner interception. Not how the Wolverines wanted to start this bowl game.
They would end up having Brendan Gibbons kick a 39-yard field goal to cut the lead to four, with only five minutes into the game. That short lead didn’t last long for the Gamecocks as they found the endzone again. This time, star punt returner and wide receiver Ace Sanders returned a 63-yard punt for a touchdown, taking away any momentum the Wolverines thought they had.
That’s how the first quarter would end, 14-3 South Carolina. As Michigan fans went to grab their food and drinks during the short quarter change, most must’ve thought the game was going to be a blowout. Not so.
Gardner found the endzone a few plays into the second quarter, a short 5-yard shovel pass to Drew “The White Receiver” Dileo. A now 11 point lead was reduced to just four points. That couldn’t even last a drive though. A huge 70-yard pass from backup quarterback Dylan Thompson to Nick Jones put the Gamecocks deep in Michigan territory. The following play, Thompson found Sanders four-yards into the endzone to retake the 11-point lead.
Gibbons would later kick a field goal late in the second quarter to cut the lead to 21-13 and that’s how the first half would end. The lead cut slightly, but still, Michigan on the losing end.
Luckily, the Wolverines would get the ball to start the second half, but they couldn’t gain a first down on the first drive. On the luckier side of things though, the Gamecocks first drive resulted in a 33-yard field goal attempt, that missed wide right. Michigan replied with a field goal of their own, an Outback Bowl record, 52-yard field goal by Matt Wile.
Michigan was now down 21-16. A touchdown would by Michigan would give them the lead. That’s exactly what happened as Gardner found wide receiver Jeremy Gallon for a 10-yard touchdown reception. The Wolverines would fail on the two-point conversion. Michigan 22 South Carolina 21. It would be Michigan’s first lead of the game, going into the fourth quarter.
An attempted field goal for the Gamecocks was blocked, giving the Wolverines a chance to increase their lead. Unfortunately, South Carolina star linebacker Jadevon Clowney destroyed running back Vincent Smith on bone-crushing hit, resulting in a fumble, and a turnover in the Gamecocks favor.
Shaw found Sanders again for a 31-yard touchdown reception to retake the lead, 27-22. They too failed on their two-point conversion. Late in the fourth quarter, with the clock winding down, Gardner again found Gallon in the endzone for a 17-yard touchdown reception to take a 28-27 lead. Once again, the two-point conversion failed.
As the clock ticked further and further down, the Michigan defense couldn’t hold the potent South Carolina offense. Eventually, Thompson found Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard game winning touchdown reception with 11 seconds left on the clock. Michigan had no chance to comeback this time. No Notre Dame moment.
It was all over, the end for senior Denard Robinson, who didn’t have much of an impact in the game. Not the way we all thought his great career would end. In the end though, Michigan competed with one of the SEC’s best teams, despite mistakes all around, a depleted secondary, and barely using Denard, the Wolverines still came within an earshot of defeating the Gamecocks in warm, sunny Tampa.