Florida State made clear what Jim Harbaugh already knows.
If you can’t outrun them, sign them.
Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines lost 33-32 to the Seminoles in the Capital One Orange Bowl because Florida State was faster. Faster on offense. Faster on defense. Faster on special teams.
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Too often, the Wolverines were grasping at air, diving at heels, watching the back of a garnet-and-gold jersey racing toward the end zone.
Nyqwan Murray took off for 92 yards, Deondre Francois escaped for 16, Dalvin Cook sprinted for 71.
When the Wolverines finally passed FSU and took a three-point lead, they left too much time for the Seminoles to catch up. Whoosh: There went Keith Gavin on a 66-yard kickoff return to set up the decisive touchdown.
The Orange Bowl keeps minting classics, 83 years after it began. The one on Friday night kept spectators’ heads spinning.
Florida State led by 12 with 11:58 left, then trailed by three 10 minutes later. The last two minutes was more roller coaster ride than football game. Up. Down. Hold on. Seminole War Chant. Hail to the Victors. Tomahawk Chop.
In the end, Michigan lost the chase. Florida State capitalized on superior speed at each pivotal moment.
“We saw on film during the last three or four weeks Dalvin Cook making big plays and he made those big plays again,” Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley said. “If we had stopped those three, four, five big plays it might have been different.”
The scoreboard clock was inadequate. A stopwatch would have been better. Miami’s Cook ran for an average of 7.2 yards every time he was handed the ball for a total of 145. He caught three passes for 62 yards, including a 45-yard beauty.
“It was the best game of my life, man,” said Cook, a Central High graduate. “This game took so many turns and we kept fighting.”
Murray, from Orlando, had two touchdown receptions. The 92-yard rainbow down the left sideline was the longest in Orange Bowl history.
Gavin, who almost took a knee when he fielded the kickoff, remembered he’s always supposed to run when he’s only one-yard deep in the end zone, then zipped through a portal to open field, is from Crawfordville, Fla.
Francois, the quarterback who takes a licking and keeps on flicking, is a freshman of Haitian heritage who hails from Miami’s Little Haiti. Francois absorbed savage hits from Michigan’s vaunted defense, but eluded the rush enough to pass for 222 yards.
Cook, Murray, Gavin and Francois grew up in the Sunshine State, as did 84 of their teammates. One thing they have in common: Fleet feet. Maybe it’s the oranges. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the competition. Florida kids are fast.
Howard Schnellenberger knew this. So did Bobby Bowden, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne. Nick Saban knows it, and Urban Meyer, of course.
The state is so rich in talent that Butch Davis, Lane Kiffin and Charlie Strong all recently signed contracts to coach in Florida with ambitions of making big splashes at schools with little football success.
Harbaugh, too, understands he’s got to reach beyond the heart of Big Ten territory and recruit from the peninsula of speed. He held satellite camps here. He has 12 players from Florida on his roster, four times more than his predecessor.
Guess which Michigan player returned the blocked extra point 94 yards for a safety with 36 seconds left, creating momentary panic for FSU? That was Josh Metullus of Pembroke Pines.
FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher is thankful to be current king of Florida. He’s got 21 players from Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. If Cook decides to go pro, Fisher has Jacques Patrick of Orlando and Amir Rasul of Coral Gables High ready to rise. Two from Plantation’s American Heritage are making an impact on defense: Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden led the nation in interceptions and defensive end Brian Burns led all freshmen in sacks.
Speed kills. Speed demoralizes. Speed makes any lead disappear faster than a lizard shimmying across a sidewalk.
Florida State, once ranked No. 2, made Michigan pay for a season that went awry early with a humiliating rout by Louisville. Michigan, which rose to No. 2, stumbled late, against Iowa, then vs. arch rival Ohio State for the 12th time in the past 13 years.
Shut out of the College Football Playoff, No. 11 FSU and No. 6 UM made the Orange Bowl their version of a postseason championship. South Florida got a sweet, juicy treat: The best of the also-ran bowls.
“We lost a couple and people kept asking, ‘What are you playing for?’” Fisher said. “We’re playing to take our game higher and progress to the championship level. The future is great. I promise you that.”
Try telling UM and FSU that the only bowls that count are those reserved for the top four teams. No Christian McCaffreys or Leonard Fournettes here. Although you could appreciate the reasoning of those NFL Draft prospects who sat out their bowl games when Michigan’s two best players – tight end Jake Butt and jack-of-15-positions Jabrill Peppers – were sidelined by injuries.
Michigan was favored because its defense was ranked No. 2 in yards allowed per game at 252.7. But FSU ran circles around the Wolverines, gaining 255 in the first half.
Florida State’s defense outplayed Michigan’s, particularly in the red zone, where Michigan had to settle for three field goals because of tackles inflicted for losses by defenders who were “fast, athletic, high-motor guys who hit us in the mouth early,” said quarterback Wilton Speight.
Cook was the back breaker. One play after Francois was sacked for a 13-yard loss, Cook slipped by two tacklers and outsprinted three Wolverines for 71 yards, illustrating what his high school teammate, the University of Miami’s Joe Yearby, said about him: “Once he gets a step on you, he’s gone.”
The game ended with an interception by Kissimmee’s Carlos Becker, and Orange Bowl Committee President Michael Chavies breathlessly summed up the fast and furious finish:
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”