January 1, 2013

Big-Play Barrage Busts Wolverines

Michigan preaches no big plays like a recovered alcoholic preaching abstinence. One too many, on Jan. 1, thrust the Wolverines down under in the Outback Bowl.

South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson's 32-yard heave to open wideout Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds remaining lifted the Gamecocks to a 33-28 win.

The final dagger plunged deep, for a Michigan team that controlled the ball for 37:59 of the game and rallied twice from 11 down to take a lead in the final moments.

Starting QB Connor Shaw (18-for-26, 224 yards, two TDs) and Thompson (7-for-10, 117, two TDs) burned the nation's No 2 pass defense for touchdown bombs of 56, 31 and 32 yards, while bowl MVP Ace Sanders (nine catches, 92 yards) made two touchdown grabs and a crushing 63-yard punt return for a touchdown.

"Number one, you can't give up big plays," U-M head coach Brady Hoke said. "We had four really big plays in the throw game that you can't allow to happen. You give them a lot of credit, but at the same time, we had some opportunities.

"Another thing was, we gave up a big punt return for a touchdown. Those things hurt your football team, obviously. It hurts the momentum, the morale, what you want to do."

Michigan's morale took a last-gasp punch to the bloomin' onions on the final, failed defensive stand. Despite 214 passing yards and three touchdowns by junior quarterback Devin Gardner, and 100 rushing yards on 23 carries by senior multi-purpose performer Denard Robinson in his final game, it wasn't enough.

Gardner's 17-yard touchdown toss to redshirt junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (nine catches, 145 yards, two touchdowns) with 3:29 remaining put the Wolverines up by a point, 28-27. That left everything in the hands of Michigan's defense.

The last of the big-play barrage sealed the 8-5 Wolverines' fate.

"I put that on us up front not getting home," noted senior defensive tackle Will Campbell. "He had too much time to throw the ball. We just needed to get home more often through this game."

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Quinton Washington came up with a huge play at the 10-minute mark of the fourth-quarter, storming in to block a 42-yard Adam Yates field goal attempt, with Michigan clinging to a 22-21 lead. The South Carolina native put a big paw up to swat the Gamecocks' hopes down.

That merely marked the opening shot of a wild fourth quarter, featuring huge plays and calls both ways. Moments after Washington's monumental spike, Michigan earned a controversial first down on a punt fake in their own territory.

On fourth-and-four inside their own 30, U-M direct snapped to freshman fullback Sione Houma, who pitched to fifth-year senior safety Floyd Simmons. Simmons appear to be just shy of the first-down sticks, but officials ruled it a chain-mover, moving Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier another notch higher on the apoplexy meter.

It ultimately didn't matter, because on the very next play, All-American defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney knocked free the football, Vince Smith's helmet, and very nearly the senior running back's head. Clowney came unblocked up the middle, delivering a devastating hit and recovering the fumbled football.

"It's a big play," Hoke said. "We had just [kept] the ball on the fake punt. Timing and all of that, it was a huge play."

One play later, Shaw gunned a 31-yard touchdown strike to Sanders, and even with a failed two-point conversion try, the Gamecocks led, 27-22, setting up Michigan's final TD-trading misery.

It took South Carolina only three plays to send a fast-delivery message about what it would take to hang close in this one. Shaw gunned a 56-yard rainbow to wideout Damiere Byrd on the game's opener series, Byrd winging past Michigan's secondary for the TD bomb that put South Carolina on top, 7-0, just 1:34 into the game.

Michigan got off to a rocky start offensively, Gardner throwing an interception on U-M's first possession. But the Wolverines got going the second time they touched the ball, Robinson bursting free on a 15-yard run the first time he touched the football out of a running back spot.

Gardner then gunned a 26-yard sideline toss to a leaping Gallon, his exceptional grab eventually setting up Brendan Gibbons' 39-yard field goal. That made it 7-3, with 7:28 left in the first quarter, but the Gamecocks quickly demonstrated they weren't chicken about scoring quickly.

Backed inside his own end zone, punter Matt Wile boomed a 54-yard punt to apparently get the Wolverines out of danger. The sonic boom response put the lie to that notion.

Sanders took the kick, weaved in lightning-bolt fashion through a maze of would-be tacklers, then flew by a helpless Wile himself on the way to a 63-yard back-breaker of a punt return touchdown.

Down 14-3 late in the first quarter, it looked like the Wolverines faced a huge climb against a ravenous Gamecocks defense. So, they started climbing.

Gardner and Robinson alternated at quarterback in the 11-play, 75-yard drive that stretched in the second quarter. The drive featured a clutch, 15-yard throw from Gardner to fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree on third down, several Robinson rushes, and an unorthodox TD toss by Gardner.

The junior rolled to his left, buying just enough time for junior wideout Drew Dileo to break free, Gardner flicking a five-yard shovel pass to him.

That made it 14-10 with 12:41 remaining, but Spurrier's crew immediately went back to the big-play bag.

Thompson saw the blitz coming, stood his ground and delivered a strike to uncovered wideout Nick Jones over the middle. He sprinted for a 70-yard gain before Michigan freshman defensive back Jarrod Wilson made a diving takedown from behind at the U-M 4.

That delayed a score only one play, Thompson rolling right and flipping a four-yard pass to Sanders to reestablish the 11-point gap, 21-10, with 10:54 left in the half.

Freshman defensive end Mario Ojemudia set U-M up late in the half, poking the ball away from Gamecocks tailback Kenny Miles, redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan diving on it at the South Carolina 31. But Michigan couldn't manage more than Gibbon's 40-yard field goal, despite an unanticipated extra chance.

Dileo took a snap on a fake field goal and looked to throw, then sprinted out to move the chains on fourth-and-seven. The Wolverines still couldn't move the ball, but Gibbons drew them back within eight at the half.

Shaw scrambled out for a 64-yard gain early in the second half, but Yates missed a 33-yard field goal attempt, keeping the Wolverines within a score.

Wile did not miss, moments later, on a 52-yard bomb of a field goal that pulled the Wolverines within five, 21-16, with 6:54 remaining in the third quarter.

The Wolverines then set up the fourth-quarter fireworks with a 65-yard touchdown drive, capped by Gardner's 10-yard TD toss to Gallon with two seconds left in the third quarter. The redshirt junior fought off a Gamecocks cornerback to make a crucial catch in the corner of the end zone.

Gardner's attempt at a two-point conversion throw ended up in the hands of South Carolina linebacker Reginald Bowens, but the Wolverines led for the first time, 22-21, headed into the final, fateful 15 minutes.

In the end, Robinson and Michigan's fellow seniors headed out into history with a last, painful look back at the field.

"That's how the cookie crumbles," Robinson offered. "At the end of the game, we've got to keep fighting. They came out victorious. We kept fighting. That's one thing you can say about Michigan."

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