TAMPA, Fla. — The college football offseason is long. It’s even longer for teams that lose their final game of the season in the fashion Michigan did on Monday afternoon.
With 7:49 left in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl, the Wolverines needed just nine yards to extend their lead to 20 and put the game out of reach.
By the early fourth quarter, Michigan (8-5 overall) had completely collapsed, surrendering a 16-point lead to South Carolina (9-4).
The Wolverines tried their darndest to lose. So the Gamecocks obliged.
And in a 26-19 loss, Michigan found out that a mid-tier New Year’s Day bowl is no cure for an 8-4 hangover.
“They got better as the game went on, no doubt,” said Jim Harbaugh. “They made plays to win the football game. We didn’t. We didn’t get the knockout punch when we needed it. Didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were there.”
The game started how you would expect large college-aged men to behave the noon after New Year’s Eve.
Both teams, far from the college football heavyweights slated to play later on New Year’s Day, began their Monday afternoon in a stupor.
Midway through the first quarter, there were four times as many commercial breaks as combined first downs — the football equivalent of stumbling into your kitchen, bleary-eyed, only to discover you’re out of orange juice.
The Wolverines’ 9-3 lead certainly wasn’t a satisfying halftime result. At the very least, they had made fewer mistakes than the Gamecocks, who simply looked as if they were ready to head back to bed and sleep it off.
But that changed in the second half.
After Michigan’s first possession of the second half produced an efficient 7-play, 72 yard touchdown drive, the errors began piling up. First, Karan Higdon fumbled near South Carolina’s goal-line, tanking a red-zone drive. The Gamecocks put together their first touchdown drive. Then Jake Bentley hit a leaping Bryan Edwards for a 21-yard score following Sean McKeon’s fumble deep within Michigan territory.
“That was our fault,” Harbaugh said of the lost fumble. “It was a coaching error. We had the wrong personnel in there, and I should’ve called timeout.”
Bentley was only beginning to heat up. On the next drive, he completed a 53-yard touchdown bomb to Shi Smith to give South Carolina its first lead of the game.
“(South Carolina) made the inside seam fade,” Harbaugh said. “Quarterback threw a really nice ball in the red zone. (They) were able to create some big plays.”
Michigan could only continue unraveling. The Wolverines were in the process of putting together a response when Brandon Peters, in an audition for next year’s starting job, tossed an unfathomable interception on third-and-goal from the five-yard line.
And to cap things off, putting the finishing touch on perhaps the most miserable stretch Michigan has suffered through all year, Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped a routine punt after the defense forced a crucial late stop.
Up to that point, viewers might have been asking themselves what other calamities could possibly befall the Wolverines. But — as this year may have taught — there is always more suffering to endure when you play sloppy football.
After the miscue, Peoples-Jones lingered on the ground for a few extra moments, seemingly lamenting the mistake.
He couldn’t be blamed for taking the extra time to gather himself. After all, it was just that type of year for the Wolverines. Dropping your final three games — all in which Michigan held a lead at some point — can subdue even the most youthful and excitable of teams.