TAMPA, Fla. -- Michigan has been in a bevy of close games over the past two seasons, from the Under The Lights insanity against Notre Dame to an overtime win over Northwestern and a field goal close to the buzzer against Michigan State.
The theme, though, has usually been similar. Michigan has found a way, in those situations, to win the game.
Not Tuesday. Not in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, when the Gamecocks scored with 11 seconds left to give them a 33-28 win over Michigan, sending Denard Robinson out with a loss and the Wolverines with bookend defeats to the SEC this season.
There were some positive things, however, as broken down in Three Up, Three Down.
1. Devin Gardner’s play: While the junior didn’t have the best game of his quarterbacking career against South Carolina, he grew up a lot in the process of the game. His pocket presence improved greatly as he was able to sidestep and make smart decisions when to throw and when to run with the Gamecocks rushers were coming close to him. He also ran the ball better than he has at any point in his college career. His passing wasn’t great -- he overthrew some receivers and threw other balls too high -- but he did throw three touchdowns and played, for the most part, smart football.
2. Jeremy Gallon as a No. 1 receiver: One of Michigan’s concerns this season and entering next year is wide receiver. The Wolverines might have found an answer. Gallon, a redshirt junior, set career highs in catches (nine) and yards (145) in the Outback Bowl. He has made big plays all season and while it doesn’t show in touchdown production, he was the Wolverines’ leading receiver this season and has played much bigger than his 5-foot-8 size. He should be a comfortable target for Gardner next season.
3. NFL Draft stock: Both Robinson and Taylor Lewan significantly helped theirs against South Carolina. Robinson showed he could be a capable running back, gaining 100 yards and showed some more versatility in his first game away with more than a week’s preparation away from quarterback. Lewan held his own against South Carolina superstar Jadeveon Clowney -- Clowney called him one of the top two tackles he has faced -- and solidified a spot high in either this year’s or next year’s draft.
1. Pass defense: At one point this season, Michigan had the nation’s top-rated pass defense. It looked nothing like it against South Carolina. The loss of J.T. Floyd to suspension hurt the Wolverines, but Raymon Taylor and Courtney Avery both struggled against the Gamecocks receivers. Then there was the middle of the field, which was wide open for big plays a lot of the day. In all, South Carolina completed 25-of-36 pass attempts for 341 yards and four touchdowns. Not good.
2. Michigan’s run game: Other than Robinson, it was non-existent, which does not bode well for the Wolverines’ future. Justice Hayes ran twice for zero yards. Thomas Rawls didn’t play a snap. Considering the Wolverines’ options at the position moving forward -- those two, an injured Fitzgerald Toussaint and redshirt freshman Drake Johnson -- this will be the team’s biggest positional issue entering 2013. In some ways it was fitting Michigan ended the season like this as the Wolverines have struggled running the ball other than Robinson all season.
3. Leadership: Every team goes through leadership shifts every season, but Michigan is going to have to replace two mainstay leaders in Robinson and safety Jordan Kovacs along with guys who had big presences like Roy Roundtree. Gardner and Jake Ryan will likely fill some of those leadership holes, but Robinson and Kovacs felt like they were at Michigan forever and were huge pieces of that leadership puzzle. On a team which will be rebuilding in spots next season -- both lines, specifically -- they will need to find strong leaders between now and the start of spring practice.