South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders (1) pulls in a touchdown reception in front of Michigan safety Thomas Gordon (30) during the second half.
TAMPA — In the waning seconds of the Outback Bowl, the nation’s second-best passing defense got burned.
Not just burned, but torched in an unlikely fashion. With 11 seconds left in regulation, little-used wide receiver Bruce Ellington caught the go-ahead touchdown pass to lift No. 11 South Carolina to a 33-28 win over No. 19 Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
“I just had to get open on my man,” said Ellington, who also plays basketball for the Gamecocks. “Dylan [Thompson] did a great job placing the ball where I could make a move on the safety and get into the end zone.”
Ellington snagged Thompson’s second-and-10 pass from the Wolverines 32-yard-line, then shifted in the opposite direction past three Michigan defenders and into the end zone for the decisive tally.
“I knew that it was man-coverage, and I knew we’d have to get it off quick,” said Thompson, who rotated with Connor Shaw at quarterback for the Gamecocks. “It was just, take our steps and throw the ball. I liked the matchup of having Bruce on the safety, and I just threw it out there. He made a heck of a play.”
Ellington, who up to that point had only one catch for four yards, completed the Gamecocks’ exploitation of the Wolverines’ secondary. Michigan’s defense entered the New Year’s Day game at Raymond James Stadium allowing an average of 155.2 yards passing, and while the Wolverines (8-5) limited the Gamecocks (11-2) on the ground, Michigan’s defense surrendered a season-high 341 passing yards, including 92 yards and two touchdown receptions to Ace Sanders.
“We know if the ground game is not moving, coach is going to put it in the air,” said Sanders, the Outback Bowl MVP. “I just told all the receivers to play confident, just play to your abilities and that’s what everybody did.”
But Michigan coach Brady Hoke also considered this much: of South Carolina’s final 11 plays, nine were passing plays by either Shaw or Thompson.
“I would have liked to see us, when we had to hold them a couple times, get them on the ground,” the second-year coach said.
That scenario was unlikely. Of South Carolina’s 53 plays, only 17 came on the ground for 85 yards. By comparison, Michigan ran 82 plays and 45 came on the run for 141 yards — including 23 carries for 100 yards by Denard Robinson, who became the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks.
The Gamecocks took a 14-3 lead after the first quarter on Damiere Byrd’s 56-yard touchdown catch and Sanders’ 63-yard punt return before Michigan cut South Carolina's lead to 14-10 when quarterback Devin Gardner (18 for 36 passing, 214 yards, three touchdown passes and one interception) flipped the ball to Drew Dileo for a five-yard touchdown 2:19 into the second. Sanders’ four-yard touchdown catch gave the Gamecocks a 21-10 lead less than two minutes later.
Brendan Gibbon’s second field goal cut South Carolina’s lead to 21-13 at halftime and after Matt Wile’s 52-yard field goal, Jeremy Gallon's 10-yard touchdown catch gave Michigan a 22-21 lead with two seconds left in the third.
Then came Jadeveon Clowney’s seismic fourth-quarter hit on Michigan tailback Vincent Smith, which sparked the final eight minutes of the game.
Clowney hit Smith so hard that it didn’t just knock the ball out of the diminutive senior’s hands. It also knocked Smith’s helmet off his head. And it gave some momentum back to the Gamecocks.
“It felt pretty good,” Clowney said of the hit. “I was laughing about it like, wow, a big play. Somebody said, make a big play so it just came to me.”
On the ensuing play, Sanders’ 31-yard touchdown gave South Carolina a 27-22 lead with 8:06 left in the fourth.
But after Gallon’s second touchdown gave the lead (28-27) back to Michigan with 3:29 left, Sanders wasn’t a target for the final drive, either for South Carolina’s offense or Michigan’s defense, which allowed the Gamecocks to convert on fourth down with less than two minutes left to set up Ellington’s touchdown.
“I don’t know if I’d say we held them in check, but we gave up too many big plays," said Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs, a Clay graduate. “That’s what it was. If you give up big plays, you’re going to be in trouble. If you eliminate a few of those plays, you held them in check. We just didn’t do enough. We didn’t hold them, we didn’t keep the ball inside and in front and at the end of the day, that’s what cost us the game. Lack of execution.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.