Wolverines pull away in second half to win Citrus Bowl, 41-7

Friday, January 1, 2016 - 2:20pm

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Michigan football team came out and scored on its first drive of the second half. And that’s when redshirt junior defensive lineman Chris Wormley said it happened.

The Wolverines led Florida, 24-7, at that point. On the first play of the Gators’ next series, Wormley sacked quarterback Treon Harris. That led to a three-and-out, giving the ball back to Michigan’s offense.

“And you could tell in their eyes — you could see they didn’t want to play anymore,” Wormley said. “They were down probably three scores by then, and it’s just a good feeling, especially for a defense — to stomp on their throats.”

And still 21 more minutes of dominance remained.

When that time elapsed, Michigan celebrated on the field with the bowl trophy. Its players had talked since the end of the regular season about reaching the milestone of 10 wins. They demolished Florida, 41-7, and their days of being demolished seemed to be in the distant past.

The Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) had routed opponents in a similar fashion before, but this came against a marquee SEC opponent in the Citrus Bowl. Michigan last beat an SEC team eight years ago to the day, when the Wolverines beat Florida in the same bowl in Lloyd Carr’s last game as coach.

“I’d say this was the best game we played all year,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen our offense play better. And our defense was magnificent.”

Added Florida coach Jim McElwain: “It was a case of getting your rump kicked in. That’s what it was.”

Michigan came into the bowl game with the same intensity as any other game, and the same refusal to let up. When the offense regained possession four plays after Wormley’s sack, redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson outran Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III for the second time in the game. He hauled in a 45-yard pass from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, and senior fullback Sione Houma punched it in three plays later.

The Gators (7-1 SEC, 10-4 overall) kept the ball for just 62 seconds on their next series, and Michigan went back to work on a 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 38-7 early in the fourth quarter.

The outcome had long been decided, and though Wormley smelled blood in the water almost a quarter earlier, more than 12 minutes remained.

“That’s the whole objective of our defense,” Wormley said. “You don’t let them score. You take their will away, and that’s what we did today. It’s a great feeling.”

Florida’s brief window of opportunity came in the first quarter. On the Gators’ first possession, they moved the ball 55 yards in 12 plays over 4:37 but stalled at the Wolverines’ 20-yard line. On 4th-and-7, they lined up in field-goal formation, but the holder flipped the ball toward the line of scrimmage and Michigan junior cornerback Channing Stribling intercepted it.

Another turnover in the second quarter continued to separate the teams. The Gators reached the Michigan red zone again, but Harris threw an interception off his back foot to senior safety Jarrod Wilson. That was as close as Florida got for the rest of the game.

Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ offense rolled over the Gators’ highly ranked defense. Michigan scored points on six of its first seven possessions and moved the ball on the ground for 225 yards and through the air for 278.

Junior running back De’Veon Smith carried 25 times for 109 yards, the first Michigan player to reach the mark since he did so Sept. 26 against Brigham Young. Chesson caught five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, including two big plays in his matchup with Hargreaves. And Rudock, the game MVP, was 20-for-31 for 278 yards and three touchdowns. With that performance, he moved into second place on Michigan’s all-time single-season passing yards list.

“Jake Rudock was fabulous, on the money today,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, darn near flawless.”

Rudock and most of the starters stayed in until the end. In his final collegiate game, Michigan’s quarterback didn’t take a knee until the final play. Long after the Wolverines stomped on Florida’s throats, their work was done. There was no time left.

Harbaugh called 2015 his favorite year in football, and Rudock and Smith agreed after the game, but only then did their celebration start. Some players will move onto the NFL or elsewhere, and some will turn their focus toward 2016.

“Guys like De’Veon and me,” Harbaugh said after the game, turning to his running back, “onward, 2016. This was the beginning of that year.”