TAMPA, Fla. – Michigan began 2002 as the victims of a central Florida slaughter, courtesy of Tennessee in the Florida Citrus Bowl. Fortunately for the Wolverines, the first day of 2003 began very differently. Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) survived six lead changes and a late Florida charge to defeat the Gators, 38-30, before a sold-out crowd of 65,101 at Raymond James Stadium.
Trailing by eight with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Florida junior quarterback Rex Grossman engineered a drive from his team’s own 27-yard line. Grossman, who was likely playing in his final game for the Gators, completed two passes for 18 yards and drew a 15-yard personal foul on a late hit from Michigan senior linebacker Victor Hobson.
But two plays after jeopardizing his defense’s chances at shutting down the suddenly efficient Florida offense, Hobson made amends.
On 1st-and-10 from the Michigan 27-yard line, the Gators (6-2 SEC, 8-5) called for a reverse option pass to wideout (and former high school quarterback) Vernell Brown. Brown rolled out to the left and was pursued by defensive end Alain Kashama, then forced a desperate, wobbly pass toward the sideline. Hobson stepped in front of Grossman (the intended receiver) and took the ball 42 yards in the other direction to ensure victory for the Wolverines.
“They’d been getting man coverage all that series, and Rex was going to be open,” Florida first-year coach Ron Zook said. “When you’re in man coverage you don’t account for the quarterback, and at that point in time I thought it was a good opportunity.”
Hobson was one of several Michigan seniors who made waves in his final game for the Maize and Blue. In particular, captain Bennie Joppru set the team’s season-receptions record for a tight end on the strength of eight catches for 80 yards. That brought his season total to 53, surpassing a 33-year old record previously held by Jim Mandich.
But it was truly a couple of juniors who led the Wolverines. Tailback Chris Perry set an Outback Bowl record with four touchdowns; the accomplishment is also a Michigan bowl record. He finished the game with 85 yards rushing on 28 carries, as well as 108 yards receiving. Quarterback John Navarre threw for a career-best 319 yards, going a very efficient 21-for-36 with a touchdown and no interceptions.
Despite Navarre’s career performance, the Michigan offense stumbled out of the gate and took some time to find its rhythm; the unit’s only score until late in the second quarter came as a result of a Florida miscue.
Deep in his own territory, Grossman found himself scrambling after a high snap. Kashama beat him to the ball, recovered it inside the five-yard line, and put his offense in position to grant Perry his first touchdown.
After two Florida touchdowns, Zook made the decision to attempt the two-point conversion try. Its failure seemed to swing the momentum back to the Wolverines, who utilized Perry via a number of screen passes to get him, Navarre and the 10-win Wolverines back on track.
This is the 23rd 10-win season in Michigan’s football history. The Wolverines will likely find themselves ranked in the top-10 nationally when the dust settles on the BCS.