Friday, January 01, 2016

Michigan Wolverines: 2016 Citrus Bowl Champions




Orlando, Fla. — Mark Schlissel, the University of Michigan president, didn’t see it coming.

As he stood on a portable stage inside the Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium, with some 25,000 Michigan fans cheering in the stands and a victorious football team celebrating all around, there was an explosion behind him. And, quite naturally, he flinched.

“This is the first time I’ve been hit in the back of the head by a confetti cannon,” he explained later, laughing as he shook the last of the debris from his hair. “You know, if I was a real pro, I would know to stand a bit more to the right. I was a rookie.”

Understandably so, this being his first bowl trip as the university president. But exactly 18 months after assuming that post, and a year after the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as football coach was announced, Schlissel was beaming Friday after Michigan throttled Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl to cap a successful season.

“It’s exciting,” said Schlissel, who shared a hug and a few words with Harbaugh as he left the stage. “The kids worked so hard. The community cared so intensely. The alumni continued to support the team in good times and bad. And this is a great culmination of a fantastic year. A 10-win season. First year for the coach. More than anybody expected.”

And more than anything, Friday’s victory helped validate much of what we’ve seen in Harbaugh’s first year at his alma mater, from the tough, physical play on the field to the renewed energy in the stands.

The Wolverines certainly did exceed expectations, coming off a 5-7 season and the firing of Brady Hoke last fall. Friday’s bowl victory was Michigan’s first since the end of the 2011 season, and the third since 2002. And with the 10-3 finish, Harbaugh became the third coach in school history to win 10 games his first season.

That alone doesn’t mean much. (The other two — Hoke and Fielding Yost — don’t have a lot in common.) And Michigan needs no reminders it lost to its chief rivals again this season, dropping a heartbreaker on the final play to eventual Big Ten champ Michigan State and then getting drop-kicked again at home by Ohio State.

“We’re not saying this is the greatest year in the history of Michigan football,” Harbaugh said, doing his best to put it all in perspective. “But this team acquitted itself very well.”

Rudock’s best year

It was Harbaugh himself who had declared on New Year’s Eve this would be the “best year I’ve had in football” if the Wolverines could finish it off with a Jan. 1 victory over the Gators.

Friday, he wasn’t hedging one bit with that resolution.

“I thought long and hard before making that statement,” said Harbaugh, whose extended family was all on the field celebrating after the game. “And I told the team the same thing.”

At the postgame news conference, as Harbaugh was explaining all the reasons, he also turned to his quarterback, Jake Rudock, voted the game’s MVP after a “darn near flawless” performance, and asked him the same thing, “Jake, is this your best year in football?”

Rudock laughed, and replied, “Yeah, it’s hard to argue that.”

Indeed, it was, as Rudock, after losing his starting job at Iowa last January, opted to transfer for his fifth year as a graduate student, landing at Michigan in the spring and winning the No. 1 job in the fall.

By November, Harbaugh was calling him a “godsend” — citing his poise and his meticulous preparation — as the 22-year-old Florida native started rewriting the school record books. And after Friday’s 273-yard, three-touchdown day, Rudock, who says he’ll put off medical school to give the NFL a shot, sits No. 2 on the Wolverines' single-season list with 3,017 passing yards.

“The standard is just to play good, efficient football, and to do things right,” said Jedd Fisch, Michigan’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. “And that’s what he does so well. He does things right, all of the time. It matters to him.”

This game mattered to all of them, though. That was obvious in the run-up, with spirited practices in the 80-degree Florida heat and a businesslike approach to the bowl, in spite of the Disney World surroundings.

And it showed Friday, as Michigan produced what Harbaugh called the team’s “most complete game of the season.”

The Wolverines scored on seven of their first eight possessions, while piling up more points and more yards (503) than the Gators had allowed all season. Michigan outgained Florida, 160-2, in the third quarter, and ended the game by running out the final 5 minutes 11 seconds on the clock.

“They took it to us, beat us up front,” Florida coach Jim McElwain, whose team also won 10 games this season, finished atop the SEC East and came in with the nation’s fourth-ranked defense.

Rushing returns

Yet, a Michigan running game that stalled late in the season looked suddenly rejuvenated, with the line opening holes and the backs — led by De’Veon Smith — exploding through them.

Smith finished with 25 carries for 109 yards, the first 100-yard effort for Michigan since a Sept. 19 romp of BYU, when he topped the century mark but also suffered a high-ankle sprain that nagged him for the next two months.

“De’Veon was a man possessed running the football,” Harbaugh said.

The defense was, too, even without injured star Jabrill Peppers, who sat out with a hand injury. Florida’s offense looked anemic late in the season, thanks to poor quarterback play and a porous line. And it did again Friday after an encouraging start, as Michigan held Florida to 28 yards and one first down after halftime.

In the end, it was simply a punishing performance by the Wolverines, which is exactly what the fans were promised when Harbaugh returned last winter.

“You saw the epitome of what he’s been trying to do since Day 1 when he got here in what was on the field today,” said linebacker Joe Bolden, one of the departing seniors. “It’s what he wants. It’s what you’ll see.”

And now that the Wolverines have found their footing, and know where to stand, joked Schlissel, “We’re thrilled to do this every year.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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