Wolverines' rally derailed in wild Orange Bowl finish

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Miami Gardens, Fla. — The Michigan players spent the last month saying they wanted to prove the Wolverines are one of the best four teams in the country.

But they came up short.

The Wolverines made a late effort to overcome a flat early showing, a 14-point deficit and the absence of two key starters — Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt — but lost 33-32 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Friday night.

It was a wild finish.

BOX SCORE: Florida State 33, Michigan 32

“I didn’t think that Ohio State (game) would be topped,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said. “It probably isn’t because that was Ohio State, but both were just roller-coaster type games. But you know, the past games we came up four points short. Wow. We play this game for games like those (four) points. We’re just on the wrong end of them.”

Michigan took its first lead of the game with 1:57 left when freshman running back Chris Evans ran 30 yards for a touchdown, and Wilton Speight connected with Amara Darboh on the 2-point conversion. That gave the Wolverines a 30-27 lead, and they felt confident.

“That drive was awesome and that two-point conversion, I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s the nail in the coffin,’” Speight said. “The whole Michigan corner was electric.”

But Florida State wasn’t done. Keith Gavin returned the kickoff 66 yards and Jourdan Lewis made a touchdown-saving tackle. After FSU took a timeout with 42 seconds left and scored on a Nyqwan Murray 12-yard catch from Deondre Francois to take a 33-30 lead.

“I thought he was kneeing the ball on that kick return,” Speight said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a great kick Kenny (Allen).’ (Gavin) hesitated. which I think made our kickoff guys hesitate or something. It’s not just that play. It’s a bunch of different plays.”

And just when you’d think it couldn’t have gotten more hectic, it did.

Michigan’s Chris Wormley blocked the extra point and Josh Metellus picked it up and returned it for two, cutting FSU’s lead to 33-32 and got the ball back with 36 seconds left.

“It's a good feeling getting a block and then having Josh return that for those two points to put us at a one-point deficit,” Wormley said. “But we knew we had to make another stop. Our offense had to get the ball back, so at the end of the day, we knew we had to score again to win the game, so our focus was getting the ball back to the offense in a good position to win.”

The Wolverines’ last-ditch effort ended when Speight threw an interception on fourth down.

Michigan finishes the season 10-3 for the second straight year under coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines lost three of their final four games by a total of five points.

“I love them, love these guys,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Great group of competitors, great group of workers, and a great group of guys that find a way. They've got a will to win. Not just they want to win; I mean, they must win. I love them for it.”

The Wolverines endured a big loss before the game even started. Do-everything Jabrill Peppers, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, did not play because of an injury to his left hamstring suffered in practice the day before the game. He did warm up before the game but said he didn’t feel confident he could play at his normal high level.

Somber Jabrill Peppers coy about future: 'I don't know'

It may have been the last opportunity for Peppers to play for Michigan, since he is considering leaving for the NFL Draft where he is projected in the first round. It’s the second-straight bowl Peppers has missed. He did not play last year for the Wolverines in Orlando because of a hand injury.

“I don’t know,” Peppers said, when asked if this was his last Michigan game. “I’ve got some decisions to make. I’ll probably take it all the way up to the (Jan. 16) deadline.”

Metellus, who defensive coordinator Don Brown extensively praised this week for his performances in bowl practices, started in place of Peppers.

Early in the second quarter, Michigan took another hit when tight end Jake Butt, the Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best at the position, appeared to injure his right knee after making a reception. He writhed in pain but eventually walked off the field without assistance, although he had a slight limp. With a towel over his head, Butt, a co-captain, walked to the locker room and gave a thumbs up to Michigan fans in the stands as he passed.

“Obviously, that's a huge blow,” Speight said. “As an offensive schematic standpoint, obviously it hurts. But it hurts to see him in his last game — I don't know what happened, but I know it was serious enough to put him out for the rest of the game, so that's a punch to the feelings, I guess, when you see your boy that you've been with for three years now that put so much into this program go down like that.”

Michigan could not generate much offense against a Florida State defense that entered the game first in the nation in sacks. The Seminoles had 15 tackles, four for loss and four sacks.

Michigan TE Jake Butt suffers knee injury in loss

Speight, who was sporting a split limp and wearing a heavily grass-stained uniform, said Florida State’s defensive line was the best he has faced.

“They were fast, just as expected,” he said. “They were athletic and high-motor guys that we kind of hit us in the mouth early but we bounced back.”

They could never get its run game going on a consistent basis and finished with a season-low 89 yards. Their lowest rushing totals this season came in their three losses, including 91 yards at Ohio State and 98 at Iowa.

The Wolverines finally scored on offense for the first time in the game with 5:22 left to pull Michigan 27-22. Speight found fullback Khalid Hill on third-and-8 for an eight-yard touchdown.

Florida State’s next possession, though, used only a minute off the clock and was halted when Jourdan Lewis defended the throw on third and 11.

Before the final spurt of scoring by the Wolverines, they settled on three field goals and finally got a spark when linebacker Mike McCray returned an interception of 14 yards for a touchdown with 54 seconds left in the third quarter. The Wolverines failed to convert the two-point attempt. The score cut Michigan’s deficit to 20-15.

The Wolverines’ defense held Florida State in the third quarter to 15 yards, after the Seminoles had gained 255 yards in the first half.

But the defense broke down early in the fourth quarter. Florida State was in a third-and-22 situation when Dalvin Cook turned on the burners for a 71-yard run to the UM 16. The Seminoles scored to expand their lead to 27-15.

Michigan struggled throughout the game in the red zone and settled for three field goals by kicker Kenny Allen. Michigan got the ball on the FSU 1-yard line on a fumbled punt return and had to settle for a field goal. Michigan reached the FSU 10-yard line and had to settle for a field goal.

Allen added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter after stalling at the 19-yard line. The Wolverines had converted on fourth-and-4 when Speight hit tight end Ian Bunting for a 21-yard gain to the FSU 12, but Speight was sacked pushing them back to the 19.

He made all of his final 15 field-goal attempts.

Michigan trailed 20-6 at halftime and was badly outplayed.

Florida State gained 255 yards of offense, including a 92-yard touchdown pass from Francois to Murray late in the first quarter. That total was just more than the second-ranked Wolverines’ defense has allowed all season — they were yielding an average 252.7 yards a game.

Michigan, which had zero yards rushing in the first quarter, had 83 yards in the first half, including 23 rushing.

“The offense in the first half, it was tough sledding,” Harbaugh said. “Wilton was able to make some plays out of the pocket, really coming up with some first-down throws, extending the play. Was very creative. That kept us moving, kept us getting some first downs, didn't turn the ball over, was really good with the ball all day. Our entire offense was.

“And our team did everything we asked of them today, starting coming out of the half. Second half, put together a drive, chipped away at the lead by three, and asked them to get a turnover, and thought that would change the momentum, and they did. When we needed the touchdown drives, we got them. So, I was just really proud of the effort of our team and also give credit to Florida State. They played a heck of a ballgame, as well.”