ORLANDO, Fla. In recent years, the Florida Citrus Bowl has been friendly to Michigan so friendly, in fact, that Michigan kept on going back.
But on New Year”s Day, the Wolverines saw what happens when you overstay your welcome. Saw it to the tune of a 45-17 thrashing at the hand of Tennessee.
Quarterback Casey Clausen found Tennessee receivers for 26 completions and 393 yards to lead his team to victory in the first ever meeting between the two schools. Clausen was named the game”s MVP, throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more.
“Tennessee is a great football team,” said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. “We all saw that today. My hat”s off to them.”
The loss marked the end to a disappointing season for the Wolverines, a year that saw them fall to both Michigan State and Ohio State en route to an 8-4 record.
Tennessee”s victory was also bittersweet. The Volunteers came painfully close to the Rose Bowl, but for a loss to Louisiana State, and despite finishing fourth in both major polls, a win in the Citrus Bowl was not the culmination that they were hoping for to this season.
“We probably should have been in a BCS bowl this year, but this should send a big message that we might be able to do something special next year,” Clausen said. “With the team we have, we should have been playing on the third in Pasadena.”
The Volunteers controlled the pace early and never let up. With speed the likes of which Michigan hasn”t seen in a long time Tennessee ran over and above the Wolverines. On one play, Tennessee tight end Jason Witten out-ran the entire Michigan secondary for a 64-yard touchdown all 265 pounds of him.
But despite looking shell-shocked and flat, Michigan was able to keep the game close, going into halftime down just 24-10 after Tennessee jumped to a 17-0 lead. into halftime down just 24-10 after Tennessee jumped to a 17-0 lead.
On one play, Michigan even fumbled twice, as quarterback John Navarre was hit and dropped the ball. Tailback B.J. Askew picked it up and ran 10 yards before dropping it himself, giving Tennessee the ball. All-America defensive tackle John Henderson forced the first drop and recovered Askew”s fumble. Up 3-0 at the time, the Volunteers scored a quick touchdown on a 3-yard pass by Clausen to Kelley Washington.
Meanwhile, Michigan started out conservatively, attempting to run up the middle right at Henderson. Chris Perry, starting in place of Askew who had been late for practice earlier in the week was stuffed by Henderson three times before the Wolverines had gained two total yards.
“We tried to establish the run at the beginning,” said senior wide receiver Marquise Walker. “Eventually we had to come out passing and I think it was a little bit too late for that.”
Walker”s athleticism almost gave Michigan a giant momentum swing near the start of the second half. On the Wolverines” second drive, with the Volunteers up 31-10, Navarre fired the ball down the field to Walker, who jumped back and, nearly horizontally, made the one-handed catch but fell out of bounds. The catch, despite being incomplete, evoked memories of Walker”s grab in the endzone at Iowa on Oct. 27. What made it more impressive, though was how long the pass was and the fact that he was being closely guarded.
While one catch probably could not have gotten Michigan back into the game, the Wolverines were desperate for a big play, and that could have been it.
“We weren”t playing horrible on offense,” said Navarre, who completed 21 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns, along with one interception. “We were moving the ball and we put together some long drives. It was just a matter of cracking it, and that”s where it didn”t work out.”
On the flipside, Tennessee relied on the big play often to put the game out of reach. Besides for Witten”s touchdown catch, the Volunteers had wide receiver Kelley Washington complete a pass and got a 42-yard run from receiver Donte Stallworth on an end-around play on third-and-long.
“We just ran into a better team today,” said Michigan linebacker Larry Foote. “On film they didn”t look that good, but they showed us something today. They just made the big plays.”
The loss was Michigan”s worst ever in a bowl game.