TAMPA — In the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke said he’d seen positive aspects of his team.
Then he considered the last time he’d seen those similar qualities, through the course of the Wolverines’ daily repetitions earlier this season.
“I really like how we’ve taken care of each other,” Hoke said. “They’ve done a good job, practice-wise, with the tempo of practice, the physicalness of practice. The timing, from an offensive standpoint, has been very positive. The assignment and the effort to the football, defensively, has been very good.
“But I felt that way before we went and played Notre Dame, and we turned the ball over six times [in a 13-6 loss Sept. 22 in South Bend].”
There’s no way to tell whether it might be a harbinger of things to come for No. 19 Michigan (8-4), which faces No. 11 South Carolina (10-2) in the Outback Bowl today at Raymond James Stadium.
Still, Hoke is optimistic.
“I think the mindset of the team is pretty good,” Hoke said.
After more than five weeks between the Outback Bowl and Michigan’s last regular-season game, the Wolverines say they’re ready to play their final game of the 2012 season, on the first day of 2013.
“For the most part, the main thing has stayed the main thing, and that’s winning the football game,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “If we can get that done, that will be a pretty good bowl trip. But the team has stayed focused and the intensity’s been where we want it to be, and we’re just excited for the game. Bowl practices are so long and they can drag on, but it’s like, I’m ready to play. I’m ready to hit somebody. It feels like camp, or spring ball all over again.”
The Wolverines will face a team that has centered its offense around its running game, even despite the loss of running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a season-ending injury in October and recently announced his intention to enter the NFL draft.
The Gamecocks have averaged 149.2 rushing yards this season (10th in the 14-team SEC), as tailback Kenny Miles and quarterback Connor Shaw have handled the bulk of the carries since Lattimore’s injury.
“You look at the body of work of the offense and they lost a tremendous running back and were able to put a couple guys in there that run the ball hard and do a nice job with the offense,” Hoke said.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the run game is a necessity for the Gamecocks.
“We have to run,” Spurrier said. “We’re not good enough to throw 40 times, although we did in the last game [a 27-17 win over Clemson on Nov. 24]. We plan to run more than we throw. That means you don’t get way behind. So, hopefully, we won’t get way behind early and have to throw.”
Michigan, however, is in a similar predicament. After losing Fitz Toussaint to a left leg injury Nov. 17 in a win over Iowa, the Wolverines will rotate among three tailbacks and will face a Gamecocks front seven that is fourth in the SEC in rushing defense (allowing an average of 119 yards a game).
“We’ll have our hands full,” Hoke said. "We have not been a football team that has run great, from a tailback perspective, for multiple reasons.”
While much has been made of the fact that the Wolverines face their second SEC opponent — four months to the day that it dropped a 41-14 loss to then-No. 2 Alabama in Arlington, Texas — Spurrier doesn’t complicate the issue.
“SEC, ACC, it doesn’t matter,” Spurrier said. “Eleven guys are out there playing against the other 11, and in all likelihood, the team that plays the best out there will win.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.