Jim Harbaugh’s highly publicized first year as Michigan football coach made stops all over the country before wrapping up in Orlando, Fla., last week for the Citrus Bowl against Florida (7-1 SEC, 10-4 overall).
The game also concluded a season of highs and lows. The Wolverines reestablished their identity and had twice as many wins than their five in 2014, but they also suffered a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State and a blowout defeat against Ohio State, finishing behind both rivals in the Big Ten standings.
In the end, Michigan’s season finished at a peak. The Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) played their best game of the season, dismantling the Gators, 41-7, on Friday. After a slow start on defense left the outcome in doubt for about a half, Michigan came out firing on all cylinders after the break. By the end of the game, most of the Florida fans who made the short trip to Orlando had left the stadium.
The Daily breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly from Friday’s game:
For most of the game, everything clicked for Michigan. The game MVP was fifth-year senior Jake Rudock, who finished his career with another strong performance by throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-31 passing. After earning the second-most single-season passing yards in program history, he continued to force NFL teams to give him a look.
Perhaps the Wolverines’ standout performer was redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson. Matched up with Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III — a first-round NFL talent who announced Monday his intention to declare for the draft — Chesson had the edge all afternoon. Twice, he beat Hargreaves deep — once with a double move and once on a deep post route — finishing with five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. He said he didn’t submit for an NFL Draft evaluation, so he will almost certainly be back in 2016 with plenty of chances to be in this space again.
More surprising for Michigan was the success of the running game, which was trending in the opposite direction of the passing attack toward the end of the season. Junior running back De’Veon Smith showed his ability to break tackles on his way to 25 carries for 109 yards, making Harbaugh compare him to NFL running back Frank Gore. Redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson and senior fullback Sione Houma each added touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the defense feasted on an outmatched Florida offense. Senior linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone and redshirt junior defensive lineman Chris Wormley each made sacks, and the Wolverines combined for six tackles for loss. In their previous game, they surrendered 42 points at home against Ohio State, so they, too, ended the season on a high note.
The success of the offense and defense in tandem allowed Michigan to possess the ball for 11:32 in the third quarter as it pulled away and 11:53 in the fourth as it ran out the clock. The offense rolled down the field, and the defense picked up quick stops, sending the offense back out and wearing down the Gators.
The Wolverines’ miscues were few and far between in the bowl game. A dropped pass by junior tight end Jake Butt and a touchback on a 57-yard punt by senior Kenny Allen were both small mistakes, far from impactful on the final outcome. Michigan’s arduous bowl preparation showed, as the team played a clean game.
Off the field, injuries brought the season to an early end for a couple of players. Redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers did not play with a hand injury, and fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill, who had a brace on his knee, did not punt in his final career game. Redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh also left the game in the fourth quarter when a Florida defender ripped his helmet off. Darboh did not return.
Michigan left little to be desired after the first few drives, but the defense did show some holes early on. Adjusting from former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to interim coordinator Greg Mattison, the Wolverines allowed 200 yards on their first four series on defense. Florida reached the red zone three times, but threw interceptions on two of them.
In their three longest drives, the Gators strung together seven plays of 15 yards or more: two quarterback scrambles and five passes. Michigan also committed two penalties in that time, the only span of the game during which the outcome was contested.
When senior safety Jarrod Wilson intercepted a pass in the end zone in the second quarter, the Wolverines halted Florida’s momentum and rolled for the rest of the game.