MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — After a season of well-executed, almost-mistake-free football, the Michigan football team floundered on Friday. Gone was the electrically flawless team that dominated Ohio State and Iowa to etch its name in the history books.
Instead, from the first drive of the game to derailed comeback hopes, the 34-11 College Football Playoff loss to Georgia was littered with miscues that ultimately cost the Wolverines the game.
“Well, I think we just didn’t execute the way we were playing, not executing the way we had been all season,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said. “That’s just top to bottom. I think we had a good plan, I think we had a good understanding of the plan. Just failed to execute consistently. We made plays, but couldn’t continue.”
Defensively, mistakes took the form of both individual blunders and coaching schemes. Bulldog tight end Brock Bowers came into the game as the biggest offensive threat, yet in the first drive alone he had 51 receiving yards and walked into the endzone untouched on a nine-yard touchdown pass.
In each of the three plays, Bowers was covered by a linebacker — sophomore Jaylen Harrell got beat over the top for 35 yards and freshman Junior Colson sprinted over to tackle him in the flat. For Bowers’s touchdown, Colson’s eyes were lost in the backfield, turning as the pass flew past him to watch both the ball and Bowers walk into the endzone.
“I think they’re just a very good team that executed more than us today,” senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “So I think that’s what it comes down to.”
Throughout the first half, Georgia utilized its running backs and tight ends to create mismatches in a man-defense. The three running backs combined for 141 yards in the game, with James Cook’s 99 yards leading the team.
Even when Michigan defenders found themselves in a good spot, they often faltered. Running step-for-step with Bulldog receiver Jermaine Burton, senior cornerback Vincent Gray lost the ball in the air, hesitated for a step and lost his spot in Burton’s pocket. In turn, Burton notched his only catch of the day, in stride, for a 57-yard touchdown.
The defense eventually cleaned its mistakes up, allowing just seven points in the second half. The offense, though, never hit its stride. Even when given multiple opportunities to bring the Wolverines back into the game, it blew them.
Trailing by a touchdown at the beginning of the game, Michigan drove down the field, methodically picking up yards until faced with a third-and-four. Junior quarterback Cade McNamara dialed in on a crossing route to senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker, but Schoonmaker couldn’t adjust to a tipped pass, bringing on fourth down. Then, on an out route, McNamara’s pass to junior tight end Erick All brushed off his outstretched fingertips, leading to a turnover on downs.
“We definitely didn’t play our best game,” All said. “A lot of mistakes, especially in a game like this against an opponent like Georgia, you can’t afford to make mistakes. Margin of error is real low, and we found that out today.”
In the second half, down 27-3, any glimmer of hope that Michigan held of a comeback disappeared in a flash when McNamara and senior wideout Daylen Baldwin couldn’t connect in the end zone, leading to an interception on the opening drive. On the ensuing drive, sophomore running back Blake Corum fumbled.
“Unfortunately we turned the ball over a few times,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Then we lost the ball in the lights one time on an offensive throw and they got an interception in the end zone.”
Friday ended a season that revitalized a frustrated fan base. It was a season full of impressive one-handed grabs from tight ends, an overperforming young secondary and an identity fueled on cohesion and communication.
Yet in the Orange Bowl, Michigan failed to show any of the traits that made this year so historic.