TAMPA, Fla. — There’s a lot of blame that can go around when an offense performs the way Michigan’s did in its 26-19 loss to South Carolina.
203 passing yards on 45 attempts with two crucial interceptions. 33 carries for 74 yards with two backbreaking fumbles.
Those four turnovers, along with a muffed punt by freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, helped the Gamecocks erase a 16-point deficit in nearly the blink of an eye. And, as the old adage goes, once it started raining, it simply began pouring.
“They just grabbed ahold of that momentum and it just never really came back our way,” said senior left tackle Mason Cole. “When things like that are happening, you’re just waiting for that big play to happen and stop their momentum. It just never really did.”
Of course, most mistakes don’t just happen on their own. It takes a collective effort, like on a fumbled handoff exchange between Brandon Peters and Sean McKeon. It seemed peculiar that McKeon, a redshirt freshman tight end without any previous carries, would get the call on a crucial third-and-one.
Perhaps that was never supposed to be the case. After the game, Jim Harbaugh blamed the miscue on the coaching staff, noting that they had the wrong personnel in the game. It was a mistake that Peters realized as well. Yet it went unchecked, and the result was costly for the Wolverines.
“Yeah, I did realize it, but I thought (McKeon would) know what to do,” Peters explained. “When I snapped the ball, he seemed a little surprised that I was handing him the ball. I should’ve seen that and made sure he knew what he was doing.”
Similar miscues plagued Michigan’s drives throughout the second half. A missed block on a wide receiver screen. A missed block on the edge. A fumble from a normally dependable ball-carrier on the opponent’s four-yard line.
So as Peters framed it, yes, a lack of execution on offense did play a role in the team’s collapse.
But — if South Carolina’s defensive players are to be believed — Michigan’s issues weren’t just in execution. They laid in preparation, as well.
When asked if there was a moment where the Gamecocks’ defense felt they had solved the Wolverines, cornerback JaMarcus King gave an affirmative answer. He felt that way after Michigan’s first two drives.
“They gave us everything,” King said. “After that, we knew we could stop everything.”
Why? King felt the Wolverines were playing to their tendencies — running a lot of the same routes over and over again.
“The choice route where the receiver runs a mesh and the tight end runs a dig,” King said. “So they ran that probably 85 percent of the time, and they ran a lot of stop routes on the back side.”
Given King’s answers, perhaps it should be no surprise that it was he who intercepted Peters on a third-and-goal from South Carolina’s five-yard line.
A mistake in judgement on Peters’ part, yes; the ball was clearly late. But what King saw on film had a lot to do with it.
Similar answers were provided by linebacker TJ Brunson and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
Brunson knew from certain formations whether Michigan was going to run the ball and where the Wolverines would run it. He could also tell what to expect from personnel groupings. That allowed the defense to simply read their keys and “make plays, execute.”
“We got in the right calls in the right positions,” Brunson said, “and everyone executed for the most part.”
Similar to King, Kinlaw felt early on that his team held a clear advantage, even if the Gamecocks trailed by as much as 16 points in the second half.
“I knew from the first play that we were going to win that game,” Kinlaw said. “I could tell from a physical standpoint.”
Calling Michigan’s offense predictable, Kinlaw — similar to Brunson — had an idea of when the Wolverines would run the ball and when Peters would drop back to pass.
As the game went on, he noticed something else as well — a change in Michigan’s body language.
“When I see body language switch, heads moping,” Kinlaw said, “that makes me want to turn it up even more.”
And by that point, it was clear that Michigan’s continued mistakes on offense had pulled it into a downward spiral it would not escape.
“If you have a guy beat mentally, a lot of good things can happen for you,” Kinlaw said.
“Probably when all the turnovers started happening — that’s when I feel like we had them mentally beat.”