Football in Paradise: Outback Bowl Recap

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Outback Bowl
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This year’s Outback Bowl between the Michigan Wolverines and the South Carolina Gamecocks was destined to be chippy. Even before the game started, players from the two squads on Wednesday had to be physically separated at a bowling event. More than a few times officials stepped in between jarring players. In the second quarter, Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin channeled his inner Baker Mayfield with some choice gestures to the South Carolina sideline.

Paradise or Purgatory? 2018 Outback Bowl Recap

Unfortunately for Michigan, the 2018 Outback Bowl was eerily similar to the dominate narrative throughout the regular season: despite strong defensive play, Michigan’s offense was plagued by turnovers and sloppy plays. The Gamecocks capitalized on every opportunity that presented itself and took advantage of an over-worked Wolverines defense. Michigan was unable to maintain a 19-3 lead and lost 19-26. Jim Harbaugh’s bowl record at the helm in Ann Arbor falls to 1-3.

Failure to Launch

Michigan’s Achilles’ Heel in this game was turnovers. In total, the Wolverines turned the ball over a season high five times. Quarterback Brandon Peters accounted for three of the turnovers. Two interceptions, one of which was picked off in the endzone by South Carolina’s JaMarcus King, and a fumble. Running back Karan Higdon added another fumble, also in the redzone, and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones muffed a punt. These turnovers led to 10 for South Carolina’s 26 points.

Peters’ struggles were particularly perplexing. Coming into the game, his teammates told the media how Peters was carrying himself with a previously unseen swagger. That swagger was nowhere to be found after kickoff.  On top of the turnovers, he also struggled connecting with receivers, over- and under-throwing a number of receivers who were in positions to make a play. He was also sacked twice.

However, to say the offensive woes all came from the quarterback would be a mischaracterization. On top of his muffed punt, Peoples-Jones dropped a huge pass, perfectly thrown, that would have netted a desperately needed Michigan first down. Instead, the Wolverines turned the ball over on downs. The Wolverines backfield also failed to produce. Michigan’s running backs rushed for a mere 74 yards and one touchdown, half of their regular season average.

Certainly, some of these struggles must be attributed to South Carolina’s defense. On top of the turnovers and the sacks, the Gamecocks had four tackles for loss and seven pass deflections and allowed the Wolverines to convert on third down only twice. However, this offense looked nothing like Michigan fans or coaches hoped given the team’s previous success with Peters under center.

Bright Spots

The two areas where Michigan played well were placekicking and defense. On the first front, Nordin was perfect on the day, scoring 12 of the Wolverines’ 19 points. He made field goals from 26, 35, 45, and 48 yards.

Michigan’s defense played tough for the majority of the game. They only allowed 61 rushing yards and two Gamecock third down conversions. They also gave South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley real problems with three sacks, two quarterback hurries, and six pass deflections.

The defense was led sophomore defensive back Khaleke Hudson who had ten tackles, one for a loss, one sack, and two pass deflections. Senior linebacker Mike McCray added seven more solo tackles, four of them for a loss. While linebacker Noah Furbush had likely the luckiest interception of his life. On a third and ten, Bentley threw a twenty yard pass that bounced off Hudson’s helmet and right into Furbush’s hands. Furbush turned around and gained 27 yards for Michigan’s offense (who promptly fumbled the ball four plays later).

South Carolina’s offense must be credited for isolating consensus All-American defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. He barely impacted the game, notching just one assisted tackle, one quarterback hurry, and pass deflection at the line. Much of the pressure on Bentley came from linebackers and defensive backs. Michigan’s vaunted defensive line did not control the game, especially late in the game, as many predicted.

The State of the Team

Three things became apparent after Michigan’s loss to the Gamecocks. First, the turnaround many fans envisioned might be farther away than previously thought. In fact, some boosters and alumni are already grumbling that Harbaugh might not be the man for the job. A coaching change in Ann Arbor is highly unlikely (if for no other reason than a lack of high caliber candidates), but undeniably Harbaugh has a lot more work to do. Given the current state of Big Ten defenses, his offenses’ performance today should be frightening. Turnover on the offensive staff seems almost inevitable.

Second, the offense lacks true grit. The defense stood tall a number of times, stopping a two-point conversion attempt, and holding the Gamecocks to a field goal when they recovered Peoples-Jones’ muffed punt. The offense, however, seemed to deflate at the first onset of adversity. The Wolverines’ last five drives went: fumble, punt, interception, turnover on downs, and interception. They also scored a mere six points off the defense’s three takeaways. If Michigan has any hope of a trip to Indianapolis next year their offense must toughen up.

Third, the quarterback position is open for competition. Many thought the announcement by Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson to transfer to Michigan would light a fire under Peters. Nothing that happened today suggests that Peters is in the pole position to take the starting job. The competition at Michigan’s camp this off season should be lively.

Trouble in Paradise?

As Michigan enters the off-season, there are more than those three questions to be addressed. As the Big Ten East makes its case as the toughest division in college football, Harbaugh and the Wolverines program will have to catch up to Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State. Can Michigan return to the promised land? Or are they stuck in purgatory?

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