The Detroit News' John Niyo and Angelique S. Chengelis break down the Wolverines' 26-19 loss to South Carolina. Angelique S. Chengelis
Tampa, Fla. — Examining Michigan’s season and, most recently, its second-half meltdown in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, might actually require a forensics specialist.
The Wolverines finished 8-5, after 10-win efforts in Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s first two seasons. They nose-dived in the second half against South Carolina with five turnovers, giving up a 19-3 lead to lose 26-19.
Their 74 yards rushing was the second-lowest of the season, and the nine passing touchdowns this season was a sign of the biggest overall problem in the bowl game and throughout the year — the offense hit the skids early and never seemed to climb back and stay there.
Harbaugh obviously knows that with a defense like the one coordinator Don Brown has built, ranked third nationally this year and first after last season, it is unreasonable to have an offense that can’t come close to enhancing its efforts.
“We’ll look at every aspect and make improvements,” Harbaugh said after the game, referring to the entire program, coaches and players.
All fingers are pointed directly at the offense, which is coordinated by Tim Drevno, who also coaches the offensive line, and pass-game-coordinator Pep Hamilton. Michigan is ranked 105th nationally in total offense (348.9 yards), and 110th in passing (171.2). The Wolverines lost their starting quarterback, Wilton Speight, during the fourth game of the season to injury, then transitioned to John O’Korn, and finally redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, who missed the final game after enduring a concussion the week before. But their offensive issues were not entirely hinged on one player.
The offensive line has been the issue for several years, even before Harbaugh’s arrival. This season, Michigan ranked 91st nationally in tackles for loss allowed and 110th in sacks allowed.
At quarterback, Peters will be challenged this spring by Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 freshman class who is awaiting word from the NCAA whether he will be immediately eligible this fall, as well as Dylan McCaffrey and early-enrollee freshman Joe Milton.
Michigan lost its final three games —Wisconsin, Ohio State and the bowl — and Harbaugh briefly summarized why after the loss to South Carolina, which in so many ways was a snapshot of the season, only uglier.
“One thing, it’s being able to just kind of sustain the momentum, keep the momentum, and then get the knockout punch,” Harbaugh said.
The players, although disappointed with the bowl collapse and the five-loss season, still have found a way to maintain a positive approach and say they have an edge.
“We learned we’re going to stick together through thick and thin,” running back Karan Higdon said after the game. “A lot of teams will fold and start pointing fingers and start blaming people, blaming coaches, and we didn’t do that. We kept going and we kept encouraging each other to keep going, down to the last second. We had some key players out (in the bowl) and seeing the younger guys step and fill those roles is tremendous and having the faith and belief behind those guys is very important.”
Higdon said the sting of an 8-5 season will linger for months.
“Until we play Notre Dame (on Sept. 1),” Higdon said, referencing the season opener. “That’s going to continue to linger, and we’re going to have to take that and fuel it up for next year.”
With the sting so fresh, Higdon and his teammates said this finish makes their offseason preparations, from winter conditioning to spring practice then the summer and preseason camp, that much more important.
“It definitely changes the vibe,” he said. “We have to go into now with a real serious approach because now we have real issues we have to face. We want to be great, we want to be a national championship contender. Those mistakes we can’t have, including myself. I have some things I wish I could get back.”
Players who are moving on to pursue professional careers, like offensive lineman and co-captain Mason Cole and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, said they see plenty of upside with the players returning.
Cole said the much-maligned offensive line will be improved, and Hurst said the defense will not drop off. He believes Michigan blew opportunities to win those games because of small things. The talent, he said, is there but did acknowledge the youth of the team.
“There’s so many chances for us to be victorious,” Hurst said. “You just look back and see all those mistakes we made throughout the year. Those aren’t things that are talent-based. I think a lot of times people may look at it as a lack of talent. We just didn’t execute the way we should have. I don’t think it had anything to do with talent or the guys that we have on our team.
“We had a good team to be able to win those last three games. We had a position where we could have won all those games. Just trying to fix those little things, just take that extra step, that’s one of the things with a younger team that you have those little mistakes and that showed this year. I’m looking forward to next year. I think we’re going to be able to cut out those little mistakes that were made and just be able to put the foot on the gas the whole time.”
Cole said the Outback Bowl loss and the way the season finished will carry the team through winter workouts as motivation.
“It’ll hurt for a while, but you’ll get over it, you’ll move on and get back to work,” Cole said.
Michigan’s offense could never put away a lead against a good team. That, in part, has something to do with the offensive line and the lack of a consistent running game that could consume the clock when needed late in game.
The Wolverines’ offensive line had a different look during the bowl game. Starting left guard Ben Bredeson was out because of an injury suffered early in bowl preparations; center Patrick Kugler was hobbled because of an injury during bowl week, and right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty did not play for undisclosed reasons.
Michael Onwenu, who had been a starter at right guard before suffering an injury and Cesar Ruiz taking over the spot, started at left guard. Stephen Spanellis relieved Kugler who started the game, and Jon Runyan Jr. started at right tackle.
Michigan’s biggest need heading into next season is finding tackles. Right now, James Hudson, Andrew Steuber and Chuck Filiaga are the prime candidates, while Grant Newsome continues to work his way back from an injury in 2016 that forced him to sit last season.
“It sucks losing five games,” Cole said. “It’s not what you want, obviously, but for these young guys to handle that adversity, it’s going to be huge going into next season. I can’t wait to watch these guys next year.
“With all the young guys coming back, they’re going to be damn good. I just can’t wait to watch. They’re going to get back to work like they always do. They’re going to have a heck of a spring ball, a heck of an offseason, and I can’t wait to watch them next year.”
Higdon understands that because of the 8-5 season, many college football pundits might write off the Wolverines heading into next year. He doesn’t care.
“That’s every year they don’t have high expectations,” Higdon said. “Nothing different. Nothing new. We’ve just got to work and learn about the Wolverines and do what we do.”