ATLANTA — Just over a month ago, Michigan rolled into Columbus, the season still bright with limitless potential. On Saturday, two games later, the Wolverines left Mercedes-Benz Stadium having lost every bit of it.
The Peach Bowl, even after a loss at Ohio State, was a chance to end the season on a high note. Michigan could have come out of it with an 11th win for only the third time since 1986, having given Jim Harbaugh his first New Year’s Six bowl win in his tenure with the Wolverines. Instead, after a 41-15 loss to Florida, Michigan has all the same questions with no answers.
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Things started to fall apart for the Wolverines in the third quarter. Looking for Nico Collins on a deep ball, Shea Patterson failed to see Gators’ safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Not only did Gardner-Johnson pick off Patterson — he returned it to Michigan’s 44-yard line.
In the postgame, Gardner-Johnson was asked about the Wolverines. The answer, just one sentence, cuts deep for Michigan.
"I don't know how they prepared," he said, "but I don't think they prepared too well."
In Florida's locker room, a team that had prepared hard — wanting to win this game to put a cap on its season — emerged.
"We had a week and a little minute to study them," Gator defensive lineman Cece Jefferson said. "I just feel like everybody bought in and watched film good. ... We just knew what was coming sometimes."
After the interception, Michigan forced the Gators into fourth-and-1, but quickly fell apart from there. Sophomore Kadarius Toney took a jet sweep for 30 yards and Lamical Perine punched it in from five yards out, extending Florida’s lead to 10 with 8:06 to go in the third.
The Wolverines followed that with a three-and-out, giving Jordan Scarlett an opening to provide the dagger for the Gators. The running back broke off a 30-yard carry, going through tackle after tackle to get Florida inside the five-yard line. Then, he took a speed option into the end zone, bringing the lead to 17.
Michigan cut it to 14 with a field goal, and seemed to have momentum after an ill-fated double-pass forced the Gators into third-and-20. But on the very next play, Perine ran straight past the Wolverines' defense for a 53-yard score, ending any hope of a comeback.
Patterson’s numbers — 22-for-36 for 236 yards — weren’t bad, but the throws he missed, including two interceptions, will dominate memory of his performance. As for the run game, replacing Karan Higdon proved tough, as five rushers led by Christian Turner and Chris Evans averaged all of 2.27 yards per carry between them.
"We were moving the ball at times and close to getting into a rhythm, but we didn't get the run game going effectively enough," Jim Harbaugh said. "Or the passing game, the protection, and the rhythm in that area to make it -- we got outplayed, really, on that side of the ball."
Without Rashan Gary or Aubrey Solomon — and with Chase Winovich playing hurt — it was apparent that Michigan’s defensive line was missing something. It sacked Feleipe Franks just three times, failing to play up to a standard that has been set higher than that. As a whole, the Wolverines’ defense — vaunted all year — coughed up big play after big play, giving up 427 total yards.
"They were just a better team," Chase Winovich said. "At the end of the day, they seemed like they had us. I think this is an observation, but for the most part, they had us figured out. They knew what we were in and how to manipulate it."