In a season that included a heartbreaking defeat to Michigan State on that last-second punt botch and a blowout loss to Ohio State, the Michigan football team finished Jim Harbaugh’s first year — the 2015-16 season — as head coach on a high note with a dominant 41-7 victory over Florida in the 2016 Citrus Bowl.
The Wolverines entered the game with nine wins — three of which were shutout victories. But one could argue none were as impressive as this blowout over a 10-3 Gator team that had won the SEC East.
Early on, Florida was able to move the ball against Michigan’s stout defense, but came up short on a fake field goal. The Wolverines responded by marching down the field with an efficient ground game headed by junior running back De’Veon Smith, who finished the day with 109 yards on 25 carries. Nine plays and 73 yards later, senior running back Drake Johnson weaved his way into the end zone for the first score.
The Gators came back with chunk passing plays that quickly took them deep into Michigan territory. After stops on first and second down, Florida coach Jim McElwain opted for a trick play. On a double-handoff reverse pass that left the Wolverine defense exposed, Gator quarterback Treon Harris caught an underhanded toss for a touchdown to tie the game, 7-7.
At this point, the two teams seemed destined to be locked in a close battle all day. This would not be the case.
Michigan gradually wore Florida down on both sides of the ball and in all phases of the game. The Wolverines’ passing attack, led by fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, hit full stride on the ensuing drives. Junior receiver Jehu Chesson, who lined up across from Florida’s All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves, was on the receiving end of many of Rudock’s throws.
With nine minutes left in the half, the two cashed in. Chesson found himself wide open in the end zone following a double-move that left Hargreaves taking the bait, and Rudock tossed the ball 31 yards, right into Chesson’s hands for an easy touchdown.
The Gators continued to rack up yards on their fourth drive, but to no avail. Pressured by Michigan’s defensive front, Harris threw into the end zone with reckless abandon, and senior safety Jarrod Wilson high-pointed the ball for an interception. The Wolverines were able to turn Florida’s mistake into points, driving 77 yards down the field before opting for a field goal just before halftime and marched off the field with all of the momentum, leading, 17-7.
In the second half, Michigan’s offense showed no signs of slowing down. On its first drive, following some good gains in the air and tough runs by Smith, the Wolverines made it into the red zone once more. This time, Rudock threaded the needle between two Gator defenders to find freshman wide receiver Grant Perry on the slant, putting Michigan up, 24-7.
Not to be outdone by the offense, the Wolverine defense came out of the locker room with even more intensity, stifling Florida’s offense time and time again.
Intense pressure from the front seven and smothering downfield coverage by the secondary left the Gators with no space to do anything on offense. Together, both units worked in tandem to protect the lead and add to it. As a result, Florida was forced into a turnover on downs on three straight possessions, which were answered with three straight scoring drives by Michigan.
When the clock hit zero, the statistics illustrated the Wolverines’ complete and utter dominance. Michigan’s offense held huge advantages in yards gained (503 to 273), first downs (28 to 14) and time of possession (38:38 to 21:22).
“It was a case of getting your rump kicked in,” McElwain said to reporters after the game. “That’s what it was.”
As expected, Harbaugh’s sentiment was more positive.
“I’d say this is the best game we played all year,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen our offense play better. And our defense was magnificent.”
With the victory, the Wolverines reached double-digit wins for only the third time in the last decade. The Harbaugh era was off to a promising start.