For the first time since 2011, the Michigan football team ended its season with a win. In one of their most complete efforts of the season, the 14th-ranked Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) dominated No. 19 Florida (7-1 Southeastern Conference, 10-4 overall) through and through, putting a finishing touch on what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called his “favorite year in football.”
There were plenty of highlights to be found in Orlando. Here are five things we learned from Michigan’s 41-7 Citrus Bowl trouncing of the Gators.
1. The run game isn’t dead.
After being the motor for Michigan’s offense in the first half of the season, the Wolverines’ stable of running backs sputtered to close the year. Yards per carry dropped from 4.8 in the first six games to 3.1 in the second, and yards per game dropped from 201.3 to 99.
But against the Gators, Michigan showed new life on the ground. Addressing a strong pass coverage and blitz-heavy front line, the Wolverines compiled 225 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries. Junior running back De’Veon Smith led the way with 109 yards, while redshirt junior Drake Johnson added 58 yards and a score.
With the run game and pass game both clicking, Michigan’s offense looked as good as it had in recent memory.
“De’Veon was a man possessed running the football,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think I’ve seen our offense play better.
“I’ve never seen a back like this that breaks as many tackles. Well, maybe Frank Gore.”
After the game, Johnson noted that the time off from games improved the health of the bruised backs, and building an early lead opened up lanes late in the game. But Smith noted that a change in mindset was the key factor and a good sign with plenty of talent coming back next season.
“We just came out there and competed today, and it showed that work and work and work actually pays off,” Smith said. “So I know (the Wolverines are) going to keep that going on into 2016.”
2. Jehu Chesson is still the team’s MVP.
When redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson was named the Bo Schembechler Most Valuable Player the Michigan football team’s annual banquet last month, it turned some heads. Chesson began the season as the pass game’s third option, and failed to haul in a receiving touchdown until the seventh game of the season.
But against Florida, Chesson looked as valuable as ever, totaling 118 receiving yards and a touchdown against two-time All-America cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
“Jehu Chesson, the MVP. He’s a great player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s one of those guys covering those kicks, and it was great to get a post route. It was great to hit that. … I mean, Florida is so athletic and has so much speed that there’s only tiny windows to make those throws and complete those catches.”
Chesson ended the season with 919 yards of offense and 12 total touchdowns — nine of which came in the final seven games. Despite not even being the team’s best receiver for much of the season, Chesson ended it as the team’s best player.
“Pardon my French, but Jehu’s got his shit together,” Johnson said of his roommate. “Like if there’s someone on our team who really has their stuff together, Jehu has his shit together.”
3. The defense was an all-time unit.
Before the game began, many expected the Citrus Bowl to be a battle of two stout defenses. Florida faltered, but Michigan held up its end of the stick. The Wolverines allowed just 253 yards, seven points and forced two turnovers in the trouncing.
“Our defense was magnificent,” Harbaugh said. “The three and outs, the stops, the play on third down, everybody playing great team defense, it was — it was really good.”
The performance capped a historic season for Michigan’s defense. In an era where scoring is as high as ever, the Wolverines finished in the top 10 nationally in nearly every defensive category, and had their third-best total defense since 1985 — falling short of the totals of the 2006 unit that finished 11-2 and the 1997 unit that won a National Championship.
“I’ve got to give Michigan all the credit in the world,” said Florida coach Jim McElwain. “They took it to us, beat us up front, did a great job in the red area, kept us off balance and, I think more than anything, played with a pad level.”
4. One-year quarterbacks can still leave a legacy.
Historically, one-year quarterbacks are rarely a good thing for Michigan. The title was usually reserved for unmemorable starters or gunslingers who struggled their way out of the position.
But fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock proved to be an exception to the rule, and was as good as ever Friday. Rudock completed 20 of 31 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns en route to being named the game’s MVP.
In the fourth quarter, Rudock also became just the second Wolverine to throw for 3,000 yards in a season, and ended his career first all-time in completion percentage.
“Jake Rudock was fabulous — on the money today,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, darn-near flawless, … getting hit and passes against corners that were going to be playing in the NFL. He’s going to be drafted.”
Though his future in football is still uncertain, it’s clear that, even with only one season to do so, Rudock made his mark in Michigan history.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Michigan’s 77-year draft streak continues … barely.
For all 77 years of the NFL Draft, a Michigan player has been selected at some point. It’s an impressive feat that only Southern California can match, but it may be in jeopardy. With highly touted prospects Butt, Lewis, Chesson and Wormley all reportedly staying for next season, the Wolverines have no surefire draft prospects graduating or leaving early.
But after thumping Florida, Harbaugh was adamant many of his seniors were ready for the next level.
“Probably about 10, 11 guys on this team that won’t be back next year,” he said. “But we’ll watch them in August. We’ll take a few hours off and watch you guys play in the NFL.”
Among the players Harbaugh mentioned were senior safety Jarrod Wilson, fifth-year senior center Graham Glasgow and Rudock. Linebackers Joe Bolden and James Ross III will also play in senior All-Star games.
No draft board has a Michigan player being taken, but after arguably its best performance of the season, expect to see at least one player’s name called on draft day.