Michigan was one play away from the big win that has eluded it all season.
But backup quarterback Dylan Thompson hit Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to play to give No. 10 South Carolina a 33-28 victory over the 18th-ranked Wolverines in the Outback Bowl.
“I thought our defensive game plan was good, and we did a nice job for the most part,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “But we let them have a few big plays, and one was right at the end.”
The Wolverines (8-5) trailed 21-10 in the first half, but rallied to take a 22-21 lead on Devin Gardner’s touchdown pass with two seconds left in the third quarter. The Gamecocks (11-2) tried a go-ahead field goal on their next drive, but it was blocked by South Carolina native Quinton Washington.
Michigan’s next drive was extended by a bizarre call. The Wolverines faked a punt — their second fake kick of the game — but the ball was spotted just short of the first-down line. A measurement showed the ball was short by about an inch, but the referee ruled it a first down anyway. It quickly became a moot point when South Carolina superstar Jadeveon Clowney blew through the line and crashed into Vincent Smith just as he took a handoff from Gardner.
Clowney, who had left the game earlier after being accidentally head-butted in the groin by Smith, hit Smith so hard that his helmet and the ball flew out. Clowney recovered the fumble, and Connor Shaw connected with Ace Sanders for a 31-yard touchdown on the next play. Sanders beat Raymon Taylor, who was playing as the No. 1 cornerback in place of suspended J.T. Floyd.
“I told someone that I was now glad the ref had done that to us,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told the media after the game. “He doesn’t hit that hard in practice. We have a rule, don’t clobber teammates.”
The two-point conversion failed, leaving South Carolina up 27-22 with 8:06 to play. Gardner, though, hit Jeremy Gallon for a 17-yard TD with 3:29 to play. Another two-point conversion fell short, so the Wolverines led 28-27.
The Wolverines forced a fourth-and-3 at the South Carolina 37 with 1:30 to play, but Shaw saved the game when he hit Sanders for a 6-yard gain. Two plays later, Jibreel Black whiffed on a potential sack that would have put the game away, but both Shaw and Sanders were injured on the play. Thompson came in and avoided another sack — this one by James Ross — before converting a third down on the next play.
That put the Gamecocks on the Michigan 32 with 17 seconds left, and Ellington beat Jordan Kovacs for the winner.
Michigan’s pass defense — a strength all season — let down the Wolverines in the final game of the season, as Shaw and Thompson combined for 341 yards passing and four touchdowns. Devin Gardner threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, but had a bad interception, while Denard Robinson rushed for 100 yards while playing tailback, slot receiver and shotgun quarterback. Robinson, playing his final game at Michigan, only attempted one pass — his first in two months — but it fell badly incomplete.
Hoke wasn’t ready to discuss Robinson’s record-setting legacy after the game.
“That’s something I’ll discuss at a future date,” he said.
The Wolverines had to come back after South Carolina took a 21-13 halftime lead behind three big plays.
On the third play of the game, Kovacs faked a blitz and couldn’t get back in time to cover Damiere Byrd on a post pattern. Shaw didn’t miss the opportunity, hitting Byrd for a 56-yard touchdown.
After Michigan answered with a field goal, the Wolverines got burned for the first time by their discipline problems. With All-Big-Ten punter Will Hagerup suspended for violating team rules, Matt Wile outkicked his coverage and Sanders broke off a 63-yard touchdown return and a 14-3 lead.
Devin Gardner hit Drew Dileo for a 5-yard TD pass to pull the Wolverines within 14-10, but then the suspensions came back to bite them again. This time, Nick Jones beat Taylor on a deep route, gaining 70 yards to the Michigan 4. Sanders scored on the next play to make it 21-10.
“One of the things you can’t do in football is give up big plays,” Hoke said. “We gave up three big plays in the passing game, and you can’t let that happen. We also gave up the punt return for the touchdown.”
Brandon Gibbons kicked a field goal late in the first half, and Wile came in for a 52-yarder midway through the third quarter to cut the Gamecocks lead to 21-16.
That set up the Wolverines to take the lead twice in the wild fourth quarter, but they couldn’t get the big defensive play they needed in the final 90 seconds.