The game anticipated a low score from both teams, with Michigan favored to win by less than a touchdown, given the strength of the Gators’ defense during the season. The Wolverines broke free of the Florida defense before the end of the first quarter to find lanes on high-yield plays and turn the game in favor of the ‘Blue.’
An early interception began to show openings in Florida’s play and, in hindsight, began the momentum shift against a seasonally strong Gator performance. The lone touchdown from the Gainesville team to tie the game came in the first quarter, where a dry spell ensued afterwards in the remaining three quarters. The coaching staff held strong mentally, noting the earned success that led the team to the bowl.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m proud of that football team in that locker room. Obviously, we didn’t play well today, and I’ve got to give Michigan all the credit in the world. They took it to us, beat us up front, did a great job in the red area, kept us off balance and, I think more than anything, played with a pad level,” McElwain said post-game.
“We had good practices. I really think they ‘out-physicalled’ us; sometimes they get the best of you. [But] what you do is go back, fix it up, and get better – that’s what we’ll do.”
De’Veon Smith drove much of the Michigan offense with 111 yards by the game’s end and critical plays that preceded touchdowns. Smith carried the ball 24 yards in the first quarter to the red zone, with Michigan taking the touchdown five plays and nineteen yards later. Smith returned in the second quarter to advance the ball 3 yards and then 8 to set up a touchdown pass from the 31 yard line from quarterback Jake Rudock to receiver Jehu Chesson. The third and fourth quarter saw the running back continue ball movement with 43 yards netted in the half.
Florida could not recover from the deficit come halftime and the end of the third quarter, earning 2 yards rushing through the fifteen-minute set and earning no gain over the air. The Michigan defense halted both of the Gators’ advance to one set of downs. Gators head coach Jim McElwain built on an agreeance that a lack of game time energy hindered the team’s full potential but did commend the players’ season leading up to the bowl game.
“And, we got a ways to go,” McElwain continued. “As I’ve said, you know, from the start, and yet we’re on our way to building something special. [Again,] and I’m proud of those guys in that locker room. I’m really looking forward to hitting the off-season and really getting a full year behind us as we know now the expectations and there’s a lot we can learn from that game.”
Quarterback Treon Harris and receiver Antonio Callaway led Florida in rushing, passing and receiving at 79 yards, 146 yards and 75 yards, respectively. The former doubled to bring the Gators their highest set of rushing and passing yards. Treon agreed with a statement paired with Jim Harbaugh that the New Year’s Day game made his most memorable game to-date. Harbaugh highlighted Rudock’s game decisions and noted the strength of the Gators’ defense despite the stray performance through Saturday’s matchup.
“There are pro players on that Florida defensive line, without question. I mean, Jake Rudock getting hit and passes against corners that were going to be playing in the NFL and De’Veon was a man possessed running the football.”
Over ten thousand Michigan alumni and fans awaited the post-game trophy presentation, where Rudock earned game MVP honors along with a team celebration following the handoff of the trophy. Harbaugh spoke Thursday at a press conference to say the season, in reflection and dependent on the Friday outcome, has been his most memorable. The Michigan head coach opened with a post-game statement to bring back his previous decision.
“I thought long and hard before making that statement, and told the team the same thing. With everything, coaching a great group of guys and a great coaching staff - the way the staff came together and the trust that came in.”
Harbaugh turned his attention to Rudock and De’Veon with the same question, both of whom obliged with “Yeah, it’s hard to argue with that.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen our offense better,” said Harbaugh. “And defensively, the same thing […]. We’ll take a few hours off and watch you guys (senior players) play in the NFL. It would be great. And for the rest of us, guys like De’Veon and me, I mean, onward. 2016. This was the beginning of that year.”