Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (12) is sacked by South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton (27) during the second quarter of the Outback Bowl on Tuesday.
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TAMPA — In the end, Michigan coach Brady Hoke did not deem this season a success. By any means.
Stinging the Wolverines that much more? A season-ending 33-28 loss to No. 11 South Carolina in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, which came down to South Carolina’s final offensive play — a 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington.
Ellington’s decisive catch punctuated a game in which the UM secondary couldn’t keep pace with the Gamecocks, and a game in which Michigan’s shortcomings were magnified.
In the bigger picture, Michigan failed to win the Big Ten championship, the annual goal that Hoke has set for the team.
That prospect grew murky after a 23-9 loss on Oct. 27 at Nebraska and was wiped out a few weeks later when Nebraska secured the Legends Division title a day before Michigan’s loss at Ohio State.
Wisconsin beat Nebraska for the Big Ten title while the Wolverines sat at home. A day later, Michigan had to settle not for second-best, but for third as the Outback Bowl selected Michigan as the Big Ten’s representative for the New Year’s Day bowl.
While some teams would be satisfied with a winning record and a late-December/early-January game in a warm locale, the Wolverines had a different perspective on a New Year’s Day bowl game since it was not the game they envisioned playing in.
“We didn’t win the Big Ten championship,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “In terms of our goals? No, it wasn’t successful. We wanted to win the Big Ten championship. We didn’t finish how we wanted to finish.”
Michigan had its bright spots this season. Kovacs was part of a passing defense that in 12 games allowed an average of 155.2 yards, while Jake Ryan emerged as one of the Wolverines’ key linebackers for next season, as the redshirt sophomore had a team-best 88 tackles, including 16 for a loss of 71 yards.
When quarterback Denard Robinson was injured at Nebraska, junior Devin Gardner made a seamless transition from wide receiver back to quarterback and finished 57-for-90 passing for 1,005 yards and eight touchdowns, with one interception in Michigan’s final four games. Gardner has targets returning in Jeremy Gallon (49 catches for 829 yards and four touchdowns), Drew Dileo, and Devin Funchess.
But offensively, the Wolverines could never cultivate a consistent running game. Robinson led the team in rushing with 1,266 yards on 177 carries, but there was a huge dropoff in production, even before Fitzgerald Toussaint (514 yards on 130 carries) suffered a season-ending left-leg injury Nov. 17 in a win over Iowa.
Toussaint’s one-game suspension at the start of the season, stemming from a drunk-driving charge in July and subsequent plea deal, seemed to wipe out any momentum the redshirt junior hoped to carry over from 2011.
Of its eight wins, Michigan won six games in what many considered a watered-down Big Ten, yet it did not defeat any ranked opponents and allowed No. 3 Ohio State to rally in the second half for a 26-21 win in Columbus.
As for Michigan’s future? Several departing seniors are expected to begin preparations for April’s NFL draft, including Robinson who will leave as one of Michigan’s most decorated quarterbacks.
Junior offensive lineman Taylor Lewan will make a decision in regards to his future, either entering the draft where he is projected to be taken in the first round or staying in Ann Arbor for his final season.
Michigan’s returning players are scheduled to open spring practices in March. Again, it’s all but certain they’ll stick to the annual goal of winning a Big Ten championship, something the Wolverines haven’t accomplished since 2004.
“While we didn’t achieve what we set out to achieve this year and we didn’t finish how we wanted to finish, I have no doubt this season will help those guys [who return],” Kovacs said. “Hopefully they can learn from it and have a heck of a year.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.