Five plays that changed the game
Written by Matt Pargoff   

Michigan fell 33-28 to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, dropping the Wolverines to 8-5 on the season. We take a look at five plays that altered the complexion of the game, affecting how the contest unfolded.

The Flip – Michigan entered the Outback Bowl coming off a demoralizing second half offensive performance against Ohio State. Against the Buckeyes, Michigan picked up just 60 yards and failed to cross midfield during the final two quarters of play. As a result, it may have been a matter of some concern that the Wolverines managed just three points in the first quarter against South Carolina.

Michigan actually outgained the Gamecocks by 19 yards, but trailing 14-3 was not the strong start the Maize and Blue had hoped for in the game. Facing a third down and three from the South Carolina five early in the second quarter, Devin Gardner rolled to his left, dodged the oncoming rush of Jadeveon Clowney, and then stepped into another defender.  Before absorbing the contact from the rushing Gamecock, he flipped the ball ahead to Drew Dileo for the touchdown.

The athletic play put Michigan back in the game and served as an important confidence boost for the offense. In the end, the Wolverines scored the third most points of any team against South Carolina.

Sneaky Gardner – Trailing 21-16 late in the third quarter, Michigan faced a situation similar to that which started the downfall in the Ohio State game. The Wolverines were on their own side of midfield, confronted with a fourth down and one play, when head coach Brady Hoke decided to go for it. Unlike the previous game where Denard Robinson was stuffed on a designed run out of the shotgun, Gardner lined up under center and went straight ahead on the quarterback sneak.

South Carolina was likely expecting the Michigan signal caller to turn and hand the ball off, which allowed Gardner to burst forward for a 19 yard gain. The run put the Wolverines in solid scoring position, and five plays later the Maize and Blue had their first lead of the contest. Had Michigan not picked up the first down, it would have handed South Carolina excellent field position and all of the momentum.

The Clowney Crunch – Everything seemed to be going Michigan’s way early in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines had score 12 unanswered, with three consecutive South Carolina possessions ending in Michigan territory without any points scored. One ended on a missed field goal, followed by a fourth down stop and then a blocked field goal. And Michigan’s own possession seemed to be continuing off a faked a punt with a controversial spot.

With all of the momentum in the Wolverines’ favor, Clowney made the statement play of the game. The sophomore defensive end entered the backfield cleanly, and ran right through Vincent Smith as he tried to take the handoff. The impact sent Smith’s helmet flying, and also jarred free the football. Clowney recovered the ball, giving South Carolina possession at Michigan’s 31 yard line. The Gamecocks retook the lead on the following play.

Converting on Fourth Down – The back and forth continued through the quarter with Michigan taking a 28-27 lead with 3:29 left in the game. The South Carolina possession the followed could be looked at as a series of near misses for the Wolverines’ defense. Many will focus on Jibreel Black’s near sack, but there were other opportunities for Michigan to finish plays on the drive as well. With that said, the key play was one that was never much in doubt.

On a fourth and three play from South Carolina’s 37 yard line, Michigan attempted to blitz both linebackers. The Gamecocks cut the rushers, preventing them from getting their hands into the passing lane. From there it was an easy pitch and catch from Connor Shaw to Ace Sanders, who was covered by Thomas Gordon in the slot. Had Michigan been able to make a play there, it would have ended the game.

The Final Bomb – The Wolverines’ defense was successful for most of the season at preventing big plays, but against South Carolina, it was an area of major struggle. The last straw was the final defensive play for the Maize and Blue. Michigan once again brought a blitz, leaving Jordan Kovacs in man coverage with Bruce Ellington.

The veteran safety was no match for the South Carolina wide receiver and was left chasing his man to the endzone. It was a gutsy call on the part of the Gamecocks. They struggled to kick field goals and had they not converted for the touchdown, they would have been in third and 10 with time for only a couple plays and possibly facing a 50 yard kick to win.

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