Tampa, Fla. -- This was the type of game they'd won many times before, gasping to the finish and snatching it away. Not this New Year's Day, not this year.
The Wolverines have played on the edge for so long, they were bound to tumble over, and it happened again in the most crushing way imaginable. Michigan showed it all, from the bold to the gaping holes, but couldn't stop a good team when it had to be done.
South Carolina scored on a 32-yard pass with 11 seconds left to stun Michigan, 33-28, in the Outback Bowl, but really, it was only stunning if you haven't been paying attention. The Wolverines finished 8-5, with another tough loss to another top team. It was an entertaining show and a humbling conclusion. And it felt like more than just a season ended.
This time, it wasn't Denard Robinson racing around, vexing the opposition. He ended a remarkable career with a gutty performance, running for 100 yards and becoming college football's all-time leading rushing quarterback. But he left the field in disappointment as an era closed — one Michigan won't ever forget, but doesn't want to duplicate.
As the face of the program departs, the Wolverines need to fortify the other important body parts, like the hefty middle (offensive and defensive lines) and the back end (secondary). There won't be a transformative player like Robinson again, and now it's time for Michigan to go back to winning the old-fashioned way. You know, by covering receivers and tackling quarterbacks.
The Wolverines weren't outmanned in this one, as some predicted. But the Gamecocks made clutch plays at the end and big plays all day, and when asked how he sums up the season, Brady Hoke didn't hesitate.
"You know what the answer is," he said. "It wasn't successful. You compete to win championships."
For a while, this was the Ol' Ball Coach (Steve Spurrier) against the Ol' Bold Coach, as Hoke made gamble after gamble. The Wolverines faked a field goal and faked a punt and went for it on fourth down in their own territory. They were plenty gritty and a bit lucky, like when the ref inexplicably declared a first down after the fake punt, even though the measurement appeared short.
You know what that did? That ticked off the Gamecocks and their spectacular defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. On the next play, he divested Vincent Smith of his helmet, his breath and the football with an incredible blast. Connor Shaw immediately threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Ace Sanders, who also scored on a 4-yard pass and a 63-yard punt return.
That's how it was, as Michigan grunted and grunted, and South Carolina sprinted and sprinted. On the final drive, with the Wolverines clinging to a 28-27 lead, they couldn't stop a fourth-and-3, couldn't sack the quarterback despite numerous chances, and didn't come close to covering Bruce Ellington on the 32-yard winner.
"We gave those defensive backs too much time to cover, and we gave that quarterback too much time to throw," defensive tackle Will Campbell said. "So I put that on the boys up front."
The boys up front — on both lines — won't necessarily become the new face of the team, but they'd better be the new force. Devin Gardner has a chance to be very good, and he created something out of nothing numerous times Tuesday. He also overthrew receivers and completed 18 of 36 passes, with one interception.
To the trenches, men
South Carolina's defense is excellent, and the Wolverines competed hard. With Robinson playing primarily at tailback, they did what they've done for a few years — they scrambled to compensate. They've simply lacked the linemen and tailbacks to run effectively, and on defense, they've used a patchwork secondary and line.
It hasn't been an easy transition, and no one has had to adjust more than Robinson, who still finished with an NCAA quarterback-record 4,495 rushing yards. That's why, one more time, people should appreciate what he gave, despite his injured right elbow.
When he entered the game, the Michigan crowd stood and roared. And when it was over, Robinson sat on a chair and tried to quell his emotions.
"I want people to remember whatever they want to remember about me, the ups and downs," Robinson said. "It's always going to be a bittersweet feeling because that was my home for four years. I would never imagine I'd have done the things I did. I'd never imagine I'd be in the Big House with everybody wearing my jersey. You come to Michigan, our goal is to win the Big Ten, so this was a failed season. But one thing I can say, we went 100 percent every time. No regrets."
Robinson squirmed when asked about his legacy. He always disliked being singled out, and after the final game, it was his teammates who wanted to single out their leader.
"Everybody's seen what he's done for the university, and the impact he's made is probably the biggest of all time," Gardner said. "He taught me to be a tough individual and the best leader possible. His legacy is set. We just have to move on."
It's a return to a traditional direction, and with plenty of young talent rising, the Wolverines should be better in the trenches. It's ridiculous for people to suggest they were pushed forward and held back by Robinson. During the rockiest transition in the program's history, Robinson was the bridge and the glue, creating offense where there was none. Go ahead, count up all the great backs and receivers Michigan has sent to the NFL the past four years. I'll wait.
Hoke's program didn't exactly take a step back this year, but it didn't advance. U-M lost close games, but that's not enough. What must they do now? Some of it was pretty obvious this day, and this season.
"Multiple things," Hoke said. "Being able to run the ball, scrimmage play on both sides of the ball. Take care of the football better. Play good defense when you need to at the end of the game. Don't take me wrong, I'm proud of the kids. They worked their tails off, and we're going to miss this group of seniors."
Robinson's electrifying unpredictability will be missed. Now, Michigan needs to fill in with some punishing predictability, because there won't ever be another show like this.