Michigan linebacker Mike McCray met with reporters ahead of the New Year's Day Outback Bowl against South Carolina. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Tampa, Fla. — In many ways, Michigan’s Outback Bowl is as much a kickoff for the 2018 season as it is a bow to wrap up 2017.
The players are seriously taking the need to reach nine wins and send the seniors off with a victory when the Wolverines face South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Both teams are 8-4 and neither can claim a victory this season over a high-caliber team.
Michigan, in its third season under coach Jim Harbaugh, had back-to-back 10-win seasons his first two years but has finished no better than third in the Big Ten East. Now Michigan has the added weight of maintaining the Big Ten’s unbeaten record this bowl season.
The theme of the Wolverines’ first two bowl trips under Harbaugh has been “business trip.” That has been the same here in Tampa, but that looked less obvious as players had a great time running plays on the beach Saturday afternoon on Clearwater Beach.
“We’re just approaching the game as our next game, you know, as a big game, as a great challenge and opportunity to compete,” Harbaugh said this week. “That’s always the best part.”
Michigan had a typical game-week preparation with meetings, watching film, training and practices mixed in with the bowl experience. It has been a valuable month, though, in terms of preparing the team for next season, allowing the younger players to get more reps and giving the coaches time to tinker with personnel and trying players at different spots.
Still, as much as discussions this week focused on next season, the players are more than aware that a ninth victory to cap the 2017 season is the goal.
Michigan outside linebacker Devin Bush talks with reporters ahead of the New Year's Day Outback Bowl against South Carolina. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
“We definitely have to win this game,” freshman offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz said Saturday before hitting the beach. “Get these nine wins. It’s really important to us.”
If some bowling alley trash-talking from earlier in the week in a shared Michigan-South Carolina bowl outing is any indication, the game could be chippy. No punches were thrown, but there were plenty of verbal barbs — “friendly trash talk” Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel described it a few days later — and the Michigan players said they’ve fed off that.
“It definitely gives us an edge going into the game,” Kinnel said. “We can’t wait for the game.”
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said the bowling alley interaction with South Carolina fired up the Wolverines.
“Most definitely,” Bush said. “I’m actually glad it happened. It makes the game that (much) more exciting.”
Harbaugh described it as a good team-bonding week.
“We’re like a pig in slop,” he said. “It’s just fun being together. We like being together as a football team. We have fun, working on football, eating good food, staying at a great hotel.”
Several of the players will have orange-dyed hair for the Outback Bowl, while defensive coordinator Don Brown will have an orange mustache. Defensive end Chase Winovich issued a challenge on Dec. 20 to raise $15,000 — his jersey number is 15 — for the ChadTough Foundation and if that mark was reached, he would dye his long blonde hair orange.
The ChadTough Foundation was created by parents Tammi and Jason Carr, whose son, Chad, died two years ago at age five, 14 months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor — Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). Chad’s grandfathers have deep Michigan connections, as do his parents, who are both graduates. Jason Carr played quarterback for his father, Lloyd Carr, who coached the Wolverines for 13 seasons, and Tammi’s father, Tom Curtis, was an All-American defensive back.
Chad’s favorite color was orange.
All donations will be directed to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Initiative at Michigan Medicine, which supported the research of Chad Carr’s donated tumor that shed light into the rare pediatric tumor that took his life two years ago.
Teammates Maurice Hurst, Grant Newsome, Josh Metellus, Bush and Brown, along with young Michigan fan Larry Prout Jr., who has endured 100 surgeries and has become part of the Michigan program, all joined in on Winovich’s plan and will have orange hair after certain amounts were met. Once $125,000 was raised, Brown had to dye his mustache. Nearly $175,000 has been raised as of Sunday afternoon.
“I knew the Michigan community was strong, and I knew people cared, but I just didn’t to that extent,” Winovich said of the support the fundraiser has received. “In my heart, man, just filled with love just to see people on Christmas day donating thousands of dollars when they could be spending time with their families. Just an awesome feeling.”
The fundraiser has been part of the team-bonding during bowl preparations, adding another layer for the players and a diversion that has a positive impact.
“It’s still business but it’s also relaxed, as well,” Kinnel said. “We have downtime with ourselves and our family. A lot of people get to see their friends down here that live in Florida. It’s definitely relaxed, but at the same time, it’s business. We definitely want to come out with this win.”
Tight end Zach Gentry said this bowl game really will serve two purposes.
“Winning the game and performing well for everybody coming back next year is definitely going to springboard (us),” he said. “It’s really important for us to get a win for these seniors. It’s a tight-knit group. It’s huge for us, with momentum into the offseason.”
For Brandon Peters, Michigan’s redshirt freshman quarterback who will start against South Carolina, he considers this a chance to have a breakout game against a Southeastern Conference team.
Peters will head into the offseason as the Wolverines’ No. 1 quarterback but will soon face challenges in the spring from Dylan McCaffrey, who redshirted this year, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who still awaits word whether the NCAA will waive the transfer rule and not make him sit out a season, and early enrollee freshman Joe Milton.
“He’s been really good. Locked in, performing well,” Harbaugh said. “Been throwing the ball good. Been sharp. Mechanics are getting better and better. Just naturally he’s got a lot of talent, and just getting better with the mechanics every time he has an opportunity to go out on the practice field.
“Every rep is great for him because it’s one of those positions that you can watch a play and it’s always something that you can see to get better at or coach. It’s not nitpicking, it’s just coaching. There’s always something in a quarterback’s play that you can coach or talk about and learn from. Every opportunity he has to go out on the field is great for him.”
Peters’ teammates have seen him come into his own this season, especially since he took over as starter.
Senior left tackle Mason Cole, who will tie a program record when he makes his 51st start in the Outback Bowl, said Peters’ confidence has grown.
“The kid’s got a little swagger to him,” Cole said this week. “He runs around like he owns the place, and that’s what you want.”
The Wolverines will want Peters to have that swagger in the bowl game, and beyond.
“I think our main goal — like all previous years — is to win the game while we’re down here,” senior fullback Henry Poggi said.
“That’s our No. 1 focus. So, I guess it is a business-trip mentality. It’s thrown around all the time in sports, but we just came here to win a football game.”
Michigan vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Noon Monday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Records: Michigan 8-4, South Carolina 8-4
Line: Michigan by 7.5