ATLANTA — Coming into the Peach Bowl, there weren’t a lot of questions about Michigan’s top receivers.
Sophomores Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins have long been atop leaderboard this season, ending with 541 receiving yards and 552, respectively. Despite not playing in many games since sustaining a camp injury before the season-opener, even sophomore Tarik Black set an expectation of offensive potential. He started all three of the games he played in 2017 before injuring his foot, scoring 149 receiving yards during that same time span and a touchdown in his college debut.
Even on Saturday, in Michigan’s 41-15 loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl, Peoples-Jones stood out. He kicked off the game catching a nine-yard lob from Patterson near the end of the first quarter to score the opening touchdown on the same drive that included two first-down passes to Collins, one of which spanned 41 yards.
But, Peoples-Jones also proved to be one of few highlights in a game that featured a Michigan offense that didn’t seem remotely close to hitting its potential. The opening drive of the game ended with two attempts from fullback Ben Mason doing everything in his power to move the ball a single yard without success, resulting in a stuff of the Wolverines’ offense — one that was emblematic of what was to come from Florida’s defense.
“Started out not picking up in the third and short and the fourth and very short, that hurt,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “That hurt one drive. We were moving the ball at times and close to getting into a rhythm, but we didn’t get the run game going effectively enough. Or the passing game, the protection and the rhythm in that area to make it.
“We got outplayed, really, on that side of the ball. Florida did a nice job defensively.”
That theme of being outplayed became distinctly clear at the beginning of the third quarter. Collins, just three yards away from Michigan’s endzone with the Wolverines trailing by three points, was ready to catch a deep pass from Patterson when Florida safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson picked it off and ran it back for a 53-yard return.
That same interception spurred a six-play touchdown capped off by the Gators’ Lamical Perine, putting a 10-point differential between the two teams.
“We wanted the shots,” Gardner-Johnson said. “They went after our freshmen early because they knew they could pick on them. We said hold your ground, somebody’s going to be over the top. It was a one-high with me and the safety exchanging. He read it as the safety would sit there. We rolled, and I just speed-turned, ball came right to me. And, I mean, dang.”
“He made a play,” Perine added.
Michigan’s offensive struggles didn’t end there.
With less than five minutes left in the game and Florida leading 34-15, Gardner-Johnson intercepted yet another pass — but this time, he returned it 30 yards to the Gators’ endzone for a pick-six to send Florida’s blue-and-orange clad fan base into a frenzy.
The ground game didn’t prove to be particularly fruitful, either. Michigan’s leading rusher, freshman running back Christian Turner, topped the team with 32 yards — 11 more than junior running back Chris Evans, who came in second. This in comparison to Florida’s rushing game, with a top three of sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks with 91, Perine with 79 and reshirt junior running back Jordan Scarlett with 63 — all almost double Turner’s total.
Combined, Michigan’s offense managed just 15 points against a 10th-ranked team in a Saturday bowl game in Atlanta, despite having the talent — or, at the very least, potential — to do otherwise. The outlook from the team for next year stays positive, but Saturday’s result will still cast a shadow.
“A lot of players are coming back,” Turner said. “Even with the players coming in, we have a lot of energy and are going to get the job done. I’m going to continue to do all that I can. We are just going to watch film and get better as a team. I have everyone on my back, and I know they have my back.”