Column: Michigan closes one era, begins another with plenty to worry about
TAMPA, Fla. -- Michigan finished its season with consecutive losses, an 8-5 record, a defeat in the Outback Bowl.
The Wolverines closed this campaign with the Raymond James Stadium scoreboard reading 33-28, they on the short end against South Carolina.
And that stings. It'll sting for some time.
But this game -- a decent bowl, but not a prized one -- never really was about the verdict. That will fade into footnote soon enough.
Rather, it was about the past and future meeting one final time. A future that will be without Denard Robinson, who became an icon as Michigan's star quarterback.
Robinson penned his final chapter in a winged helmet by setting another record -- the NCAA quarterback rushing mark, a bit ironic, considering he played against South Carolina mostly at tailback.
He finished with 100 yards on 23 carries, cracking a front seven that is among the country's best, and passed West Virginia's Pat White for the all-time quarterback record.
But that was lost on Robinson, whose always identified more with team success than personal accolades. He walked off the field slowly following the game, shaking hands with a few South Carolina players, sneaking a peek into the stands, savoring the final seconds of his storied career.
Then he stepped into the concrete tunnel, leaving behind the Tampa sky, and that was that. The Denard Robinson story was finished. And what a dazzling story it was.
"I don’t think anything really has to be said on that topic," said Devin Gardner, who replaced Robinson at quarterback the past five games. "Everybody’s seen what he’s done for the university, and the big impact he’s had – probably the biggest of all time.
"His legacy is set, and we just have to move on."
Michigan flips the script to 2013 with an answer at quarterback. But after chewing up lesser opponents, it's clear Gardner, who moved back to quarterback after Robinson sustained an elbow injury Oct. 27, is not a finished product.
He was 18-of-34 passing for 214 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against South Carolina. He struggled with his accuracy, especially early, overthrowing several receivers.
He threw a pick on his first series, after weeks of talking about eliminating turnovers.
Gardner made plays down the stretch, finding receiver Jeremy Gallon for a pair of second-half touchdowns, including one with 3:29 remaining that gave Michigan a one-point lead.
That lead didn't hold up, though. Too much time was left on the clock and South Carolina, as it had for much of the game, chewed up the Wolverines' once-mighty secondary.
Gamecocks quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson combined to complete 8-of-9 passes for 73 yards to set up a game-winning 32-yard strike to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left.
"I just feel bad we didn’t go out on top, like we should have, for (Robinson)," Gardner said.
Michigan was so close, but there is no moral victory to be had. Not when it lost other games in similar fashion. And that's a bigger issue than a loss in a good-but-not-great bowl.
It was the same story against Alabama in Dallas, at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, at Ohio State. And now, in Tampa against South Carolina.
There is no shame in losing to any of those teams, each ranked among the top 25, and four among the top 11. Two will play for the national title.
But Michigan lost to all of them, which is the problem. It held Notre Dame to 13 points, but couldn't seize the opportunity, and then finished the season by ceding second-half leads to Ohio State and South Carolina.
"We didn’t win, but we certainly fought until the end," Gardner said. "I just want to take that into the offseason, practice really hard, work hard so we don’t have to feel like this again."
At some point, simply fighting hard won't cut it, just like 8-5 won't cut it.
To make the next step, Michigan must limit the big plays, which killed it against South Carolina.
It must shore up the offensive line, where outside of Taylor Lewan it was dominated for much of the season, and especially in the Outback Bowl.
It must find a solution at tailback, where Robinson was the team's only back to eclipse 100 yards in a game this year, even though he played there in just three games.
"We've got a long way to go as a football program, and as a football team, but our seniors continued to lay some groundwork and a foundation," coach Brady Hoke said.
The foundation is there, thanks largely to Robinson. The 11-2 finish in 2011, and Sugar Bowl title, elevated the program out of the gutter.
But in 2012, the results diminished. The season closed with the same blunders that muddied its regular season.
Good enough to compete against the best. Not good enough to beat the best.
That will be this team's legacy, not defined by the Outback Bowl loss, but certainly shaped by it.
It offered one last chance to see singular greatness.
It offered one more reason to worry going forward.
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