On the first day of 2018, the story of the 2017 season played out for the Michigan football team.
Four months of frustration summed up in four quarters.
After returning just five starters — the fewest total in the nation — from a team that finished 10-3 a year ago, the inexperienced, yet talented, Wolverines set out on a mission to show the country that this wouldn’t be a rebuilding year.
But that’s exactly what the season became for Michigan.
The Wolverines opened the Outback Bowl on a high note, as the defense forced a trio of three-and-outs and held South Carolina to just 13 yards in the first quarter. Redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich even recovered a fumble, as did freshman defensive back Ambry Thomas on special teams.
But Michigan’s offense couldn’t take advantage of either opportunity, failing to reach the end zone despite starting at the Gamecocks’ 31-yard and 46-yard lines, respectively. In both cases, redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin hit a field goal to put the Wolverines on the board.
Their 6-0 lead was just as unconvincing as their 4-0 start to the season.
Back in September, Michigan’s double-digit wins over then-No. 17 Florida, Cincinnati, Air Force and Purdue were marred by a tendency to wait until late in the second half to put the game away, mainly due to the prevalence of mindless turnovers.
That should sound familiar. The difference is that the Wolverines still managed to put those games away.
The second quarter showed more stagnation, as Michigan’s defense kept South Carolina at bay while its offense struggled to move the ball. Nordin and Gamecock kicker Parker White traded 40-plus-yard field goals to make it, 9-3, at halftime.
And at the end of October, the Wolverines had dropped to 6-2, with two reasonable victories over Indiana and Rutgers and two devastating losses to Michigan State and then-No. 2 Penn State.
Still, Michigan had control of its own destiny. As unlikely as it may have seemed, if the Wolverines won out — their stated goal at the time — a Big Ten championship berth could have been in the cards.
In the third quarter, Michigan began to make its move, scoring a touchdown on its first possession after the break. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters put together a six-play, 72-yard drive capped off by a one-yard rush from freshman fullback Ben Mason.
On the very next series, redshirt junior linebacker Noah Furbush picked off South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley and returned it 27 yards to the Gamecocks’ 27-yard line.
The Wolverines had their chance to put the game away. But they only made it to the four-yard line.
Junior running back Karan Higdon was stripped, and South Carolina pounced on the loose ball.
“(We) gave up too many opportunities,” Higdon said. “We had them right where we wanted them. … We just didn’t capitalize.”
After that play, the momentum shifted dramatically. Aside from a 48-yard field goal from Nordin, it never swung back in Michigan’s direction.
In November, the Wolverines beat Minnesota and Maryland handily. They were riding high at 8-2 with two games left to play. But down by just four points to then-No. 5 Wisconsin, Peters suffered a concussion and left in an ambulance.
Michigan lost that game, as well as its next game against then-No. 8 Ohio State, and finished the regular season with an 8-4 record.
Suffice to say, it wasn’t the ending the Wolverines had imagined.
By the end of the Outback Bowl, Michigan turned the ball over four more times. The Gamecocks scored 20 unanswered points. South Carolina, which entered the game as a seven-point underdog, went on to win by that margin instead in a 26-19 loss for the Wolverines.
In the fourth month of Michigan’s 2017 season — bowl month — the same problems that haunted it all year came to the forefront and sent the Wolverines into 2018 with a sour taste in their mouths.
“We have to finish games, and we just didn’t today,” said senior left tackle Mason Cole. “ … When things like that are happening, you’re just waiting for that big play on us to stop their momentum, and it just never really did.
“It’s tough, especially for younger guys. They handled it fine, but sometimes when things aren’t going your way, you get emotionally hijacked or whatnot, and it’s just a learning lesson. Obviously, we wish it went the other way, but it didn’t.”
And because it didn’t, Michigan has a long offseason ahead. Its young core, thrown into the fire this year, performed about as well as could have been expected.
But the Wolverines have plenty of room to grow. They already know.
Asked how long the bitter feeling of an 8-5 season will linger, Higdon cut to the chase: “Until we play Notre Dame.”
While the 2018 season opener is eight months away, he and his teammates have their work cut out for them.
“You gotta go into it now with a more serious approach because now we know we have real issues that we gotta fix,” Higdon said. “If we wanna be great and we wanna be a national championship contender, those are mistakes that we can’t have.”
Four quarters in 2018 and four months of 2017 showed Michigan there’s a lot to learn from a rebuilding year.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.