If the Gator Bowl was Rich Rodriguez’s final opportunity to show athletic director Dave Brandon that he should remain Michigan’s head football coach, his team’s performance made a terrible last impression.
The Wolverines looked completely overmatched in suffering a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State. It’s the worst performance by a Michigan team in a bowl game, topping the 45-17 loss to Tennessee in the 2002 Citrus Bowl.
As was the case virtually all season, Michigan’s defense was pushed around the field by a powerful rushing attack. The Bulldogs rushed for 210 yards, running up 491 yards of total offense, overwhelming a defensive unit that couldn’t match up physically and appeared disorganized at several points.
The play that might sum up Michigan’s defensive performance the best occurred early in the second quarter. With the Wolverines trying to make a goal line stand and hold a 14-10 lead, the defense was caught attempting to make a last-second substitution.
Linebacker Obi Ezeh was seen running onto the field and across the formation as MSU snapped the ball. Tailback Vick Ballard rushed right through the hole that Ezeh likely would’ve filled for a touchdown and the lead. After the play, ESPN cameras showed defensive coordinator Greg Robinson chewing Ezeh out on the sideline.
But one play hardly made the difference, as the Bulldogs could do whatever they wanted on offense. Quarterback Chris Relk completed 18 of 23 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 36 yards. Tailback Vick Ballard led MSU with 77 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries.
Michigan demonstrated an explosive offense throughout the season, something Rodriguez could hang his hat on. However, the Wolverines couldn’t run the ball against MSU’s front seven, managing only 85 yards on the day. (Although, in fairness, Michigan had to abandon the run because it fell so far behind.)
Quarterback Denard Robinson rushed for 58 yards on 11 carries. No other Michigan running back gained at least 20 yards.
Robinson passed for 256 yards and two touchdowns, completing 27 of 41 passes. But he missed on several key third down opportunities, killing several Michigan drives. Darryl Stonum led the Wolverines with 59 receiving yards, while Roy Roundtree had nine catches.
Was the Michigan football team distracted by the uncertainty over Rodriguez’s job status? The coaching staff put on a good face during bowl preparations, looking like they were focused on the task at hand. But worry over whether or not they’d be employed after the Gator Bowl could have been a major distraction.
Obviously, that goes for the players, too. Most of these kids came to Michigan to play for Rodriguez, and wondering if he’d be around to coach them through their collegiate careers — and how their roles could change under a new staff — surely affected their preparations.
Regardless of possible distractions, the Gator Bowl presented a chance to end an up-and-down season on a positive note. Instead, this looked like most every bad loss Michigan endured, with a defense that put the team hopelessly behind, giving the offense little opportunity to catch up. Additionally, special teams performed poorly yet again, rendering the kicking game a non-factor.
If Brandon was waiting to see how the Michigan football team performed in this bowl game to make his final decision on the head coach, it’s difficult to believe this didn’t persuade him that a change might be necessary.