MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — One by one, they disembarked the team busses oozing a newfound cool. Perhaps emboldened by their pummeling of Ohio State and their ravaging of Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, or perhaps entranced by the trappings of a week on the beach in South Florida, these Michigan football players were imbued with College Football Playoff swagger.
They were clothed in fresh white Jordan brand tracksuits designed especially for the occasion — a date with third-ranked Georgia in the Orange Bowl — and many of them debuted the types of sunglasses befitting rock stars or rappers. Some stopped to sign autographs and play catch with fans between warmups prior to kickoff. It was clear that these Wolverines, who spent the week assuring reporters a trip to the national semifinals alone wouldn’t quench their thirst, firmly believed they belonged on the sport’s grandest stage.
BOOK IT: Celebrate Michigan football’s historic season with this new Free Press book!But a team that captured its first league title since 2004 and retooled its brand to radiate the rugged demeanor of its hyper-competitive head coach, Jim Harbaugh was quickly indoctrinated on the differences between good teams and great teams. Between a program that recruits well enough to compete for national titles and one that usually finishes second fiddle to an archrival. Between a roster littered with NFL prospects and a nucleus of formerly unheralded prospects who have thoroughly — and impressively — overachieved.
What unfolded during the 34-11 stoning at Hard Rock Stadium was an embodiment of the chasm atop college football, where teams like Georgia and Alabama seem to be playing a different game than everyone else. An eye-opening speed and talent disparity between the Bulldogs and U-M was made worse by mental mistakes, rotten coaching decisions and an inability to win the line of scrimmage that only widened the gulf. In a matchup that required Jim Harbaugh’s team to play flawlessly against an SEC juggernaut, the Wolverines were effectively castrated in a drubbing that was all but over by the second quarter.
Quarterback Cade McNamara, who developed happy feet in the pocket as his protection failed, completed 11 of 19 passes for 106 yards and two interceptions. Tailbacks Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for 65 yards on 16 carries in what was easily their lowest output of the season. Georgia’s quarterback Stetson Bennett captured the game’s offensive MVP by throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns, while cornerback Derion Kendrick was named defensive MVP after snagging a pair of interceptions.
In truth, one possession on either side of the ball foretold the mauling to come. It was only the third play from scrimmage when Bennett, maligned by his own fanbase all season, hung in the pocket to launch a beautiful 35-yard pass to freshman sensation Brock Bowers that highlighted an error by defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who asked edge rusher Jaylen Harrell to cover the freakish tight end in coverage. The Bulldogs scored four plays later when a blown coverage left Bowers alone in the flat for a walk-in touchdown.
Mismatches between Georgia’s skill players and Michigan’s linebackers became a prevailing theme as offensive coordinator Todd Monken toyed with his counterpart. He isolated running back James Cook, an excellent receiver, against inside linebacker Junior Colson for a 53-yard gain down the right sideline. Monken returned to that matchup again in the fourth quarter for a 39-yard touchdown pass to Cook after Colson, a true freshman, misread the play as a run and jumped forward before having to retreat.
Georgia also exploited Michigan’s season-long struggle with up-tempo offenses by breaking the huddle and racing to the line of scrimmage for quick snaps that made pre-snap communication and movement all but impossible for Macdonald’s defense. Bennett rendered star edge rushers useless by relying on lightning-quick passes that got the ball out of his hands in an instant. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo combined for zero quarterback hits and zero sacks. Ojabo did not record a tackle.
On the other side of the ball, where Friday’s game pitted a Michigan offensive line recognized as the best in the country against a hulking Georgia defensive front that proved to have advantages in size, quickness and strength at nearly every position. Center Andrew Vastardis, who was giving up roughly 45 pounds to monstrous nose tackle Jordan Davis, a projected first-round pick, was blown off the ball on U-M’s first play from scrimmage as McNamara scrambled up the middle when the pocket collapsed. In the second quarter, right tackle Andrew Stueber was knocked on his backside by outside linebacker Nolan Smith en route to a sack.
Such frailty in the trenches led to four sacks and two more quarterback hits as the Bulldogs peppered both McNamara and backup J.J. McCarthy, who played sparingly in the first half but took over for good when the game was out of reach. Georgia muzzled the Michigan rushing attack by repeatedly slicing into the backfield and beating pulling offensive linemen to their spots.
After turning the ball over on downs and punting on their first two possessions, which dug an immediate 14-point hole, the Wolverines finally created a positive play when McNamara heaved a ball to wide receiver Roman Wilson for 42 yards as defensive tackle Jalen Carter leveled the passer. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis immediately slashed his group’s momentum on the next play when he called for McNamara to make a pair of ball fakes against one of the fastest defenses in the country. The result was an eight-yard loss that put the offense behind the chains and eventually forced a field goal from kicker Jake Moody at a time when U-M desperately needed touchdowns.
That kick, which cut the lead to 17-3, was the only threat the Wolverines mustered on a night when Georgia bullied them into submission and cruised toward the national title game.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football crushed by Georgia, 34-11, in Orange Bowl