If there was any question the importance of NFL caliber players to the Michigan Wolverines, Saturday’s Peach Bowl provided your answer.
Some may also point to the ‘next man up’ philosophy and time to prepare for this game, but the Peach Bowl proved that sometimes the next man up really isn’t the answer you were looking for.
Michigan went in to the Peach Bowl without big-time names like defensive lineman Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and running back Karan Higdon and it showed in a 41-15 loss to Florida in the first of the New Year’s Six bowl games, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
The Wolverines defense started out hot against Florida’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks, but a sputtering offense cause the defense to eventually fold under the weight of being on the field for way too long.
Franks would only complete 13 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown in the Gators win. But, it was the run game that Michigan couldn’t stop and where the missing pieces came in to play the most.
After coming in to the game giving up just 116.6 yards per game on the season, Florida gashed Michigan’s defense for 257 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
It was the most yards given up in a single game this season, topping the 193 yards that were allowed to Rutgers in early November. Not having a player like Bush, who racked up 79 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks on the season certainly hurt.
So did the fact that two key pieces to the puzzle that were on the field went down to injury. Both defensive end Kwity Paye and linebacker Devin Gil ended up injured and never returned to the game.
Florida eventually went on to win the battle of time of possession as well, even if that isn’t how their offense is built. The Gators held the ball for 31:19 compared to 28:41 of the game for the Wolverines.
However, all of this could have been pointed to an offense that missed opportunity after opportunity to keep themselves in the game or even take a lead and dictate the game.
Following a 46-yard touchdown run by Chris Turner that was called back after replay showed he stepped out of bounds before dashing to the end zone, Michigan was stuffed on a 4th and 1 on it’s opening possession of the game.
The Gators responded with a field goal as Michigan’s defense stiffened up inside the red zone.
Michigan actually held a pair of leads in the game, as Donovan People-Jones grabbed a 9-yard touchdown pass from Shea Patterson for a 7-3 lead in response to Florida’s field goal.
The Wolverines tacked on a field goal after blocking a punt and starting at the Florida 30-yard line in a to 48-yard field goal following zero yards gained on the drive. The made field goal extended Michigan’s lead to 10-6 with 5:56 remaining in the half.
But, that was the end of the party for the Wolverines as Florida ripped off 21 unanswered points to take a 27-10 lead with 2:34 left in the third quarter.
Michigan would be outscored 38-3 in the second half overall, as they struggled to get anything going in the run game and became too one-dimensional without Higdon in the game.
His replacement, Chris Evans, managed just 20 yards on a seven carries and even Chris Turner couldn’t help much. He managed just 32 yards and the team was held to just 77 yards on the day.
Quarterback Shea Patterson was forced to attempt 36 passes, completing just 22 of them for 237 yards with just the one touchdown to two interceptions in the game.
Patterson didn’t get much help from his offensive line either, giving up five sacks on the day and having Patterson scrambling for his life far too often to sustain anything on offense.
We’ll never know if having Bush, Gary or Higdon would’ve been the ultimate difference, but not having them available from the start meant a depleted depth chart and that proved pivotal in this matchup.
It also proved that sometimes the next man up really is a step down and that matters when playing against fellow top teams.
Something needs to happen in college football if these types of games also begin to mean nothing to the players. Not playing on even footing is killing some of the tradition of college football and this game proved that in a big way.
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