ORLANDO, Fla. – It was a perfectly fitting end to a season where nothing fit at all.
After a year in which the pieces of the Michigan football puzzle were beaten (twice), humbled, torn, sprained, dislocated and then beaten (twice) again, the pieces finally came together and created an everlasting image for anyone who cares about Wolverine football: Michigan coach Lloyd Carr riding victorious off the field on his players’ shoulders after a more-impressive-than-it-looked 41-35 upset of the defending National Champion Florida Gators.
“It was a great ride,” Carr said. “A great ride by a bunch of great guys.”
Carr was talking about being carried off the field, but he could have just as easily been referring to the game that had just finished or even to his final season as the Michigan football coach.
After an up-and-down season finished with losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, critics predicted that the Wolverines would be outmatched and outclassed by Florida (5-3 Southeastern Conference, 9-4 overall). Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 9-4) foresaw a different ending to its coach’s final season.
“You hear all throughout the weeks that it’s not even going to be close, it’s going to be a rout, they’re going to beat us by 50,” wide receiver Adrian Arrington said. “Even their players were saying that. We had a big chip on our shoulder, and we came out here and played.”
Critics like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit had bashed the Big Ten in recent weeks, saying teams like Ohio State and Michigan would struggle against faster SEC teams like Louisiana State and Florida in the bowls. Most of the country agreed, with more than 90 percent of voters in an ESPN.com poll predicting the Gators would beat the Wolverines.
“Ninety-one percent?” wide receiver Mario Manningham said after the game. “Come on, we aren’t that bad.”
The Wolverines showed Florida and the rest of the country they had the speed and the defense to keep up. Cornerback Morgan Trent caught super-athlete Percy Harvin from behind on a 66-yard run early in the second quarter, preventing the Gators from scoring with the game tied at 14. Manningham looked just as elusive as Harvin, getting a career-high seven carries and turning one of them from what looked like a sure loss into a cross-field, highlight-reel 23-yard scamper.
But for Michigan to pull out the win over double-digit favorite Florida, a lot stranger things had to happen than simply matching the Gators’ speed.
Chad Henne, mentioned by some as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate before the season, had to battle through a torn PCL in his knee early in the season and a dislocated throwing shoulder later on, as well as “We want (backup quarterback Ryan) Mallett” chants from the Michigan crowd. Henne turned in arguably the best game of his career Tuesday, throwing for 373 yards and 3 touchdowns in an effort that garnered game MVP honors.
For many, however, the performance was far from surprising.
“I expected him to have that type of game,” quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler said. “Every time he goes on the football field, he’s expected to have that type of game, and things worked well today. We finally saw a healthy Chad Henne. He’s almost completely 100-percent.”
Far less anticipated than Henne’s strong performance was how the senior got it done. Henne did nearly all of his work from a spread formation, one that surely shocked Wolverine fans accustomed to power football and straight-forward, drop-back passing. Michigan changed its gameplan for Florida, often using four and five-wide receiver sets and shotgun formations to give its playmakers opportunities to exploit mismatches.
Predictably, running back Mike Hart played well, gaining 129 yards and scoring twice. Astonishing, though, were the captain’s two fumbles on Florida’s goal line, one coming in the second quarter and one in the third. They were just the second and third fumbles Hart has lost in his career, and the senior had gone 1,004 touches without a fumble lost before giving the ball away.
“(My teammates) knew how I felt about it,” Hart said. “To fumble two times inside the five-yard line . they knew I wasn’t feeling too good. The defense stepped up and the offense stepped up. I thank them for that.”
Even Michigan’s four turnovers, compared to Florida’s zero, couldn’t stop the Wolverines. Not when Michigan converted third downs at a season-best 66 percent while the Gators moved the chains on just two of its 11 third-down tries. Not when the previously boring and predictable offense had a trick-play run for left tackle Jake Long, tried a double pass, endless end arounds, and operated consistently out of the spread offense for the first time. Not when the defense, unable to stop spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks all season, added two new blitzes that confused the Gators and did just enough to get key stops when it needed to.
Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin called the win a “storybook ending” to the season and the careers of Carr and his seniors. And after a season as emotional and as trying as this one was, nothing could have been more appropriate.
Michigan entered the season regarded as National Championship contenders and favored to win the Big Ten. Consecutive season-opening losses to Appalachian State and Oregon quickly dashed those hopes, and it looked like the Wolverines might have trouble simply ending the year with a winning record.
An eight-game winning streak put them back in contention for the conference title and a Rose Bowl bid. But just when it looked like Michigan was perhaps the hottest team in the country, the back-to-back season-ending losses had the Wolverines hanging their heads.
All that changed in the Capital One Bowl, though. Expected not to have a chance against the Gators, Michigan finally fulfilled the potential that everyone thought it had before the year began. With Hart and Henne healthy and the team fired up to win their longtime leader’s last game, all the Michigan pieces had come together. Everything the experts thought was turned on its head. Florida’s defense wasn’t too fast for the Wolverine offense, the Michigan defense contained Tebow and Harvin just enough, and the Wolverines managed to control the game in a tough road environment. Not even Florida coach Urban Meyer’s spotless bowl record (4-0) compared to Michigan’s five-game bowl-winless streak worked out “like it was supposed to.”
Or maybe it did.
After all, Meyer, Tebow, Harvin, and almost every contributing member of Florida’s football team will return next season, likely as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the nation. But for Hart, Henne, Long, Crable, the rest of the Michigan seniors and likely some important juniors, this was an all-important finale.
Now, even with their four losses to Ohio State, even with their National Championship hopes quickly crushed in their senior season, even with Henne and Hart’s injury-plagued seasons, this group of seniors and this coach have a complete, and fittingly finished, work of art to remember.