The Detroit News' John Niyo and Angelique S. Chengelis break down the Wolverines' 26-19 loss to South Carolina. Angelique S. Chengelis
Tampa, Fla. — New year, same unresolved issues.
And for Michigan football, this wasn’t just the epitaph for 2017, as a colossal second-half collapse against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl handed the Wolverines a third consecutive loss to end the season.
It’s also their identity until they prove otherwise. All of it is, from the offensive ineptitude to the head-smacking quarterback play to the late-game stumbles in every facet of the game.
Jim Harbaugh’s team didn’t just come home empty-handed, spoiling the Big Ten’s perfect bowl record with a 26-19 loss to an unranked SEC opponent on New Year’s Day. The Wolverines came unraveled again at crunch time, blowing a 16-point lead over the final 1½ quarters with a mess of turnovers and questionable coaching decisions that will only add to the offseason questions surrounding this program.
It goes beyond the desperate search for a quarterback for Michigan right now, though Brandon Peters’ play in what was billed as a de-facto interview for next season’s No. 1 job certainly left the door wide open for Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, provided the latter can get NCAA clearance to play in 2018.
But it wasn’t merely Peters’ performance — the missed throws early that fell incomplete and the ill-advised ones late that were intercepted — that cost the Wolverines this game.
It has to fall back on the coaches, because the disjointed offensive display Monday wasn’t an anomaly. It was the same thing we saw for much of this season: Simple missed assignments in pass protection, a run game that struggled to find any consistency, and the kind of play-calling confusion that’s simply inexcusable in the 13th game of a season.
The momentum had already started to turn when Michigan lined up for a third-and-1 play at its own 23-yard line near the end of the third quarter. Karan Higdon’s first-and-goal fumble earlier in the quarter — with the Wolverines poised to take a 23-3 lead — had given the Gamecocks a reprieve.
“We didn’t get the knockout punch when we needed it,” Harbaugh said.
But then they proceeded to punch themselves in the face.
Peters said he knew something was wrong when that short-yardage third-down play began, with Kekoa Crawford coming in motion and a split-backfield with Higdon and tight end Sean McKeon behind him. McKeon wasn’t supposed to be there.
“But I thought he’d know what to do,” Peters said. “When I snapped the ball, he seemed a little surprised that I was handing the ball off. I should’ve seen that and made sure that he knew what he was doing.”
Or maybe, as Harbaugh openly admitted later, “That was our fault. That was a coaching error. We had the wrong personnel in there, and I should have called timeout.”
Whoever was to blame on the sideline — and since this is Harbaugh’s offense, he has no choice but to take it — the end result was a botched handoff to McKeon, who’d never taken one in a game before and still hasn’t, technically speaking, since Peters was officially credited with the fumble on the play.
A fumble that South Carolina immediately capitalized on, as quarterback Jake Bentley connected with Bryan Edwards on a pretty play-action pass from 21 yards out to close the gap to 19-16.
“We said if we get a turnover, we’re taking a shot,” Bentley said.
And from there, the hits kept coming for the Wolverines.
They couldn’t respond on their next possession, and Michigan’s defense — dominant for most of three quarters — started to come unglued, with Tyree Kinnel getting beat deep on a 53-yard bomb that gave the Gamecocks the lead.
Peters then did what young quarterbacks often do, forcing a pass in the red zone that was picked off in the end zone. And after a special-teams gaffe — Donovan Peoples-Jones’ muffed punt return — set up another South Carolina score, it was a full-scale panic attack. The play-calling was a mess and Peters was a portrait of distress, completing just one of his final nine attempts with two interceptions.
“I mean, I didn’t execute well at all,” he said afterward, his voice barely audible in the middle of a postgame media scrum. “Especially in the second half. I put a lot of that on me.”
As for how he felt that so-called audition went Monday?
“I mean, not well, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I’m not going to let it define who I am as a player.”
But as a program? That’s the larger question here, and one Harbaugh will have to answer in the coming months, at least internally.
There are ready-made excuses for some of the offensive dysfunction, from the patchwork offensive line — one that was missing three starters for most of Monday’s game — to the revolving door at the quarterback position. But there has to be more to it than that, because their chief rivals won more in spite of similar youth and inexperience.
And with far less hype, a fact that isn’t lost on the Wolverines, whose behind-the-scenes Amazon documentary series didn’t exactly go as scripted. It might even require an R-rating the way this season ended.
“Since Coach Harbaugh has been here, this is the worst record we’ve had, so of course (the critics) are going to find a reason to pick on this,” Higdon said.
“We expect that. We know that. But we’re gonna ignore that and we’re gonna focus on the Wolverines and just do what we do.”
But what will Harbaugh do next? Staff changes seem necessary — and inevitable — on the one side of the ball, where co-coordinators Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton both made $1 million annually to coach a team that ranked 100th nationally in total offense.
And before the Wolverines settle on a quarterback, they’ll need to settle some of the issues there, with something more substantive than the message Harbaugh had for his players in a somber postgame locker room.
“He just said, ‘There’s better days ahead,’ ” Peters said. “Just take this and learn from it. There’s better days ahead.”
But on this New Year’s Day, that statement sounded like a shrug of resignation as much as it did a statement of resolve.