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Wojo: Sliver of difference deals UM big slice of Orange ache

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Florida State wide receiver Nyqwan Murray completes the winning touchdown catch ahead of Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis late in the fourth quarter during the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, December 30, 2016.  Michigan lost to Florida State 33-32.

Miami Gardens, Fla. — The night began in anguish for the Wolverines, and that’s how it ended. From a staggering start to a stunning finish, Michigan showed it all, the good, the bad and the painful.

Florida State topped Michigan’s stirring comeback with a last-minute gasp of its own, beating the Wolverines 33-32 in a wild Orange Bowl Friday night. One more time, Michigan showed its promise and its flaws. One more time, it took a crushing gut-punch in the closing seconds, compounded by agonizing injuries to All-Americans Jake Butt and Jabrill Peppers.

The Wolverines rallied from a 20-6 deficit, grabbed a 30-27 lead on Chris Evans’ 30-yard touchdown run with 1:57 left, and then fell as the Seminoles again made the biggest plays. First, it was a 66-yard kickoff return by Keith Gavin, after he nearly downed the ball in the end zone. That led to a 12-yard touchdown pass by Deondre Francois with 36 seconds left, as receiver Nyqwan Murray outleaped star cornerback Jourdan Lewis to make the catch.

“We didn’t perform as well as we should have, but I’m extremely proud the way everyone fought,” Lewis said. “I want the younger guys to go out with a better feeling than this. You gotta be able to execute in pressure situations, and I didn’t. That pass was a routine thing that I stop all the time.”

And that’s Michigan’s season in a nutshell. Several great players, several huge moments, many outstanding performances. But in the three biggest games, the opposition made the key plays at the end.

For the second straight season under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines finished 10-3, but there was tangible progress, as disappointing as it turned out to be. They had a chance to win every game but lost three by a total of five points. To take the next step, they’re gonna have to find a way to pull out these tight ones, and figure out a way to consistently run the ball.

Turnover time

That’s something for Harbaugh and his staff to address, and adjust quickly as a huge batch of seniors departs. But first, they’ll have to shake the numb of a familiar defeat. If the Wolverines thought the double-overtime loss to the Buckeyes was devastating, this practically topped it, especially on a personal level.

Butt suffered an apparently serious knee injury in the first half and spent the bulk of his final college game being consoled in the locker room. He still should have a bright NFL future, but when you question why some stars opt to sit out their final game, remember Butt.

Peppers didn’t play, injuring his left hamstring in practice the day before. He was on the field before the game, warming up, loosening his leg, and then he was gone, his short-lived college career likely over. Afterward, he fought back tears as he described how he tried to go but couldn’t. He also said he hadn’t decided if he’s heading to the NFL, but it sure looks like a mere formality.

“It was very heart-breaking, knowing you could affect the game some way, somehow, some facet,” Peppers said. “To have these seniors go out with another one-point loss, in a game everybody put it all on the line, it’s just a sickening feeling, it sucks.”

Michigan TE Jake Butt suffers knee injury in loss

Let’s be very clear here — this defeat can’t be pinned on Peppers’ absence, although losing his multi-faceted impact moments before the game didn’t help. The bigger blow was Florida State’s pounding pressure on Wilton Speight, who struggled mightily at first. That’s something Michigan must address, toughening up its offensive line, which too often failed to control the line of scrimmage.

Wilton didn’t wilt, though, and neither did the Wolverines. Michigan’s vaunted defense lived up to its billing for long stretches but was busted by Florida State’s explosiveness. Great running back Dalvin Cook broke a 71-yard run on third-and-22, right after Michigan had sliced the deficit to 20-15 on Mike McCray’s interception return. Earlier, Murray sprinted 92 yards on a pass from Francois to make it 17-3.

“The offense in the first half was tough sledding, but then Wilton was able to make some plays out of the pocket,” Harbaugh said. “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.”

Game breakers needed

Michigan’s most-productive play-makers were on defense, led by Taco Charlton, a senior who played his best in the final few games of his college career. Cook is another senior who seized the moment, the type of game-changing back the Wolverines desperately need. De’Veon Smith was a warrior, but rushed for only 36 yards.

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

Pumping up the offensive line and finding a marquee back should be major priorities. Speight admirably fought back and finished 21-for-38 for 163 yards, but he has plenty to work on.

“Losing Jake Butt, obviously that's a huge blow,” Speight said. “From an offensive schematic standpoint, obviously it hurts. But it hurts to see him hurt in his last game — that's a punch to the feelings. … As far as (Florida State’s) defensive linemen and linebackers, yeah, they were fast, just as expected. They were athletic, high-motor guys that kind of hit us in the mouth early, but we bounced back.”

The bad news for the Wolverines began early and kept mounting, although it’s hard to say if the Peppers news staggered them. Any conjecture that Peppers made the safe call, as stars Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery had in other bowls to avoid injury, seemed moot afterward. Peppers was distraught, so frustrated he couldn’t get the hamstring loose, Harbaugh sent him to the press box to watch the game and avoid any distraction.

The injury to Butt was more physically damaging, as he went down after catching a pass and fighting to Florida State’s 7. It was a classic Butt play, flashing great hands and toughness, and it ended in despair. He writhed on the field, his helmet off and his hands covering his face, as trainers hovered over him. It appeared his legs twisted beneath him, and although he eventually walked off under his own power, he never returned.

That’s the brutal flip side to the debate that has swirled this bowl season, and you can bet plenty will pause when criticizing stars who mull whether to play their final game. Without Peppers and Butt, Michigan wasn’t out of it, although it looked that way at times.

There was another flurry of excitement, another compelling twist, another near miss. This was Michigan’s season in short form, right on the brink of something special, close but not yet there.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski