TAMPA, Fla — Dylan Thompson never saw his pass that split a trio of Michigan defenders for a perfect 32-yard strike into the arms of receiver Bruce Ellington. He heard it, though.
Thompson, sent sprawling by a thundering hit from freshman linebacker James Ross III after he released the ball, was flat on his back at midfield of Raymond James Stadium when Ellington crossed the plane of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left.
“I got hit and everything stopped for what seemed like a minute,” Thompson said while grinning. “Then I heard the crowd roar.”
For Michigan, one final time, the rush was a moment too late, the coverage a step too slow. The sequence replayed itself again and again in South Carolina’s 33-28 comeback victory in the Outback Bowl.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison preach the concept of keeping the ball “inside and in front” on defense to limit big plays. Tuesday, the Wolverines simply couldn’t manage it.
In the full regular season, Michigan allowed just 12 gains of 30-plus yards, good for fifth best in the nation. And the Wolverines were even more successful futher downfield, allowing just two plays of 50 yards or more, and not a single one beyond 60 yards.
But those numbers were moot as soon as the curtain rose in Tampa.
The defense was gashed by South Carolina quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Thompson for six plays of 30-plus yards from scrimmage, including gains of 31, 32, 37, 56, 64 and 70 yards, in addition to a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“There are a couple things in football that you don’t want to do, and number one is you can’t give up big plays,” Hoke said.
Put in perspective, the Wolverines allowed their longest pass (70 yards), rush (64) and punt return (63) of the season in the same game.
“It was just too many big plays,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, a team captain. “We knew coming in that if we kept the ball inside and in front as a defense then we’d be all right.
“But we gave up too many big plays and that caught up to us in the end.”
The secondary, missing fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess, its top two cornerbacks, to suspension and injury, respectively, entered the Outback Bowl ranked No. 2 in pass defense, allowing just 155.2 yards per game.
The defensive backs weren’t expected to be tested against South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s run-heavy offense. But the Gamecocks instead took to the air early, often and effectively to take advantage of a thin Michigan secondary.
“Throughout the entire season, we felt like we’re a faster receiving corps and we can get by anybody,” said receiver Demiere Byrd. “We always try to take our shots, and today we were able to capitalize on them.”
Shaw took the first shot, exposing sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor with a deep pattern to Byrd. Byrd hauled the pass in and tumbled into the end zone to give the Gamecocks an early lead and open the air raid just 94 seconds after kickoff.
“It gave us the momentum and set the tone for the game,” Byrd said, nodding.
Neither Byrd, Thompson or Kovacs thought the absence of Floyd played a particular role in the success of the South Carolina passing game. Thompson credited his receivers, who “just stepped up made plays,” while Kovacs cited a lack of execution. Senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said the front seven didn’t reach the quarterbacks quickly enough.
After registering over 40 carries in each of the last four games of the season, South Carolina ran just 17 times in Tampa. The Gamecocks threw 36 times for 341 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
South Carolina had five wide receivers make catches of 30-plus yards against Michigan, but perhaps no single player plagued the Wolverines than Sanders, a junior receiver and punt returner. Sanders made nine catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns, but it was his electrifying punt return late in the first quarter that turned the most heads.
Sanders fielded a booming punt from sophomore punter Matt Wile back inside his own 40-yard line, gathered himself for a moment and started up-field. He split the two gunners and found a crease that carried him on a diagonal across the field, past Wile and into the end zone.
“It’s almost like playing a video game,” Thompson. “You put (Sanders’s) ratings all the way up and play on rookie level. He goes out, the smallest guy on the field, makes them miss and you look up and he’s in the end zone. He’s just the definition of a playmaker.”
The lackluster performance surely won’t sit well with the Michigan defense, known for strength at the point of attack and limiting damage downfield.
“It really doesn’t feel very well,” Hoke said. “It means that we’ve got to emphasize some things better. Deeper than the deepest, keep the ball inside and in front.”
Redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon, junior cornerback Courtney Avery, Countess and Taylor will return next fall with at least a game of starting experience under their belts in the secondary. They’ll remember the feeling just as clearly as the lesson they’ll take away.
“If you give up big plays,” Kovacs said, “you’re gonna be in trouble.”