By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 1, 2013
TAMPA , Fla. — In Tuesday’s Outback Bowl, the Gamecocks sprung up early and finished on top to spoil the Wolverines’ New Year’s Day.
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Down 27-28, No. 11 South Carolina started its last drive of the game with three and a half minutes left on the clock. The quarterback combo of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson led a meticulous drive down to the Michigan 32-yard line, putting the Gamecocks in field goal range.
But instead of settling for three, Thompson caught the Wolverine secondary napping and hit Bruce Ellington in front of the goal line. The receiver sidestepped a defender and crossed the plane with 11 ticks left.
After the kickoff, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner’s hail mary attempt as the clock expired was tipped on the release, and that was the ball game — South Carolina trumped Michigan on New Year’s Day, 33-28.
“Very proud of our seniors and very proud of our kids that participated and came down here and how the guys have worked all year,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “We’ve got a long way to go as a football program and as a football team, but our seniors continued to lay some groundwork and a foundation.”
Though the Michigan defense came into the Outback Bowl ranked second in the country in pass defense, it had trouble stopping South Carolina’s big passing plays all game long.
On the third play from scrimmage, Shaw, who is known more for his legs than his arm, aired one out 56 yards down the middle of the field to Damiere Byrd, who beat out cornerback Raymon Taylor.
In the second quarter, Thompson hit Nick Jones in stride on a seam route that went for 70 yards up the middle of the field. That play set up a four-yard touchdown pass to Ace Sanders, who finished the day with a football hat trick.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Monday that he deploys a run-first defense, but it was immediately clear on Tuesday that he wasn’t afraid to have his quarterbacks take shots over the top.
“There were too many big plays,” Kovacs said. “We knew coming in that if we kept the ball inside and in front as a defense that we’d be alright. But we gave up too many big plays, and that caught up with us at the end. It was just a lack of execution.”
Michigan’s special teams play was another major factor in the loss. The coverage unit did a poor job containing Sanders, who returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown, untouched — it was the third punt return for touchdown in his career.
But after that, special teams came up big for the Wolverines.
In the fourth quarter, redshirt junior defensive tackle Quinton Washington jumped up at the line and blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt, temporarily preserving a 22-21 lead.
Hoke also faked a field goal and a punt, and he was successful on both. On the fake field goal, junior wide receiver and holder Drew Dileo surveyed the field for a pass but then tucked the ball and rushed for the first down, which eventually set up a Brendan Gibbons field goal.
The fake punt was snapped directly to senior safety Floyd Simmons, who rushed forward for the first down.
“We had worked on that fake punt for nine weeks,” Hoke said. “The last game, you’d better run it, so we had to run it. The banquet’s over with, so we can’t save it for the banquet. It was something that we had seen and liked against multiple teams.”
But the conversion on the second fake didn’t yield points, as senior running back Vincent Smith fumbled the ball away on the very next play upon taking a vicious hit from star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who came into the backfield completely unhindered.
Smith’s helmet came flying off, much to the delight of the South Carolina fans in attendance.
For the most part though, the Wolverine defensive line contained Clowney as well as any team has this season. Michigan redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan was matched up with Clowney for most of the game, and he limited the All-American to just four tackles.
“Everyone told me he’s unblockable one-on-one … but today I did my job, did my job for Michigan,” Lewan said. “I went up to him after the game, I said, ‘You’re one of the best defensive ends I’ve ever played against.’ And he looked right back at my eyes and said, ‘You’re the best tackle I’ve ever played against.’ That’s a great compliment to have.”
Lewan is projected by most experts to be picked in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, should he opt out of his final year of eligibility at Michigan. After the game, he said he wants to address the team regarding his decision before he releases the information publicly.
Tuesday also marked the last time fans will get to see their already legendary quarterback, Denard Robinson, don the maize and blue. Throughout the game, he was used much in the same way as he was toward the end of the season, lining up mostly at tailback or quarterback, and occasionally in the slot. He attempted his first pass since playing at Nebraska on Oct. 27 in the third quarter, but it was incomplete, intended for Dileo in the flat. That was his only pass attempt of the game.
Robinson completed the final performance of his Michigan career with 100 rushing yards, and he surpassed Pat White as the all-time NCAA leading rusher for a quarterback, with 4,495 yards.
“I know I’m going to remember the downs and ups,” Robinson said. “It’s always going to be a bittersweet feeling because I’m leaving. (Michigan) was my home for four years.”