TAMPA — Michigan’s underachieving 2017 season ended with a New Year’s Day thud in a 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
It capped a year in which the Wolverines lost to both rivals — Ohio State and Michigan State — finished in fourth place in the Big Ten East, and produced a subpar offense.
Now UM enters the most important offseason of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at a crossroads, searching for an offensive identity while trying to quell alarmists who think the Harbaugh era is veering off the tracks.
“It’s being able to just kind of sustain the momentum, keep the momentum, and then get the knockout punch,” Harbaugh said Monday when asked about Michigan’s three consecutive losses to end the season. “That would be what my thought is right now.”
On Oct. 7, Michigan was ranked No. 7 in the country. It ended the season with four wins in its final nine games, with the last victory coming the second week of November. Monday’s collapse was a microcosm of a season that finished in a roadside ditch.
The Wolverines, which led 19-3 in the third quarter, surrendered 23 unanswered points in the final 17 minutes, 25 seconds. A flood of turnovers spelled doom for Michigan.
Michigan (8-5) controlled the game until a third-quarter fumble by running back Karan Higdon, which opened the floodgates for the Gamecocks (9-4). The Wolverines turned the ball over five times in their final eight possessions, and they turned it over on downs on another drive.
“We gave up too many opportunities,” said Higdon, who finished with 65 yards on 17 carries. “We had them right where we wanted them. We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We had some great looks and just didn’t capitalize.”
Higdon said he tried to get down before he fumbled, but South Carolina defensive lineman Ulric Jones held him up and the ball was dislodged. It was almost as if a second game began at that moment.
Michigan forced a punt and Quinn Nordin connected on one of his four field goals on the ensuing possession. Then, it was all South Carolina.
To that point, the Gamecocks had three first downs and 109 yards of offense. In their final 26 plays, they scored 23 points and recorded 191 yards and 10 first downs. During the same span, Michigan had 106 yards, five first downs, four turnovers, and zero points on 24 plays.
“At the end of the day, we play for 60 minutes. And our guys understand that,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “Those guys are eventually going to make some plays for us, and that’s why you just keep champing and keep playing. Never once did I feel like the game was in the balance.”
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley, who was named Outback Bowl MVP, completed 19-of-32 for 239 yards, touchdown passes of 53 and 21 yards, and one interception.
In his first appearance since being concussed at Wisconsin, Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters completed 20 of 44 pass attempts for 186 yards with two interceptions, one of which was crippling.
On third-and-goal midway through the fourth, Peters carelessly lofted the football in the corner of the end zone in the direction of Donovan Peoples-Jones. But the freshman receiver had no chance to make the catch.
Instead, it was picked off by South Carolina cornerback JaMarcus King.
Michigan didn’t pick up a first down the rest of the game.
“I was just trying to give [Peoples-Jones] a chance, and the cornerback made a great play on it,” Peters said.
On the day after Christmas, Michigan arrived in Tampa intent on entering the offseason with positive vibes after an Outback Bowl victory. They viewed the game as a springboard into 2018, which contains high expectations. Now, the Wolverines face an offseason of constant scrutiny and second-guessing.
“Untll we play Notre Dame,” Higdon said when asked how long the five-loss season would linger. “We’re going to have to take that and use it as fuel for next year.”
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