The temptation was to look down when the ball was tipped into the air. But it happened so quickly, you couldn’t. It had already landed in cornerback Duke Dawson’s arms and been returned for a touchdown in one long breath.
When Michigan got the ball back, the same thing happened. Interception, touchdown, and the Gators had the lead in the second quarter of Saturday’s game.
About two hours later, coach Jim McElwain was booed as he exited AT&T Stadium following his team’s collapse.
“They physically took it to us,” he said after the game. “They beat us every which way they could up front, and we never had an answer.”
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Try as it did to overcome the shortcomings of an offense that produced 164 yards, Florida’s defense — and its pair of pick sixes — wasn’t enough as the No. 17 Gators fell to the No. 11 Wolverines 33-17 in Arlington, Texas.
“Their guys were bigger and stronger,” McElwain said. “They whooped us. Plain and simple.”
Led by redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who made his first collegiate start on Saturday, Florida’s offense found little success against Michigan’s physical front. After connecting with wideout Josh Hammond for a 34-yard gain on his first pass of the game, Franks couldn’t do much else. He finished the game with 75 yards on 5-for-9 passing.
He was replaced by graduate transfer Malik Zaire in the third quarter, and Zaire didn’t do much better. He finished with 106 yards on 9-for-17 passing, about half of those yards coming in irrelevant minutes near the game’s end.
Florida’s only point on offense came courtesy of a 42-yard field goal from Eddy Pineiro on the first drive of the game.
The offensive line, which coach Jim McElwain touted as being much improved and the strength of the team leading up to the game, allowed five sacks, four hurries and couldn’t get any push in the run game. The Gators finished with 31 yards on the ground.
After McElwain touted a plan to be effective on offense in the week leading to the game, he admitted that that plan failed.
“I thought we had a good plan, obviously,” he said. “And then, as it turned out, the plan was pretty well foiled by getting physically whooped by big, strong guys. That was disappointing.”
He said part of that plan involved getting the ball to shifty playmakers like Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney, which UF was never able to do against the Wolverines.
“They were a big part,” McElwain said. “There was some stuff we didn’t get to.”
While the defense did most of the scoring for Florida, it wasn’t particularly effective, either, aside from the two interceptions. Michigan’s offense methodically carved it with the precision of an expert butcher, amassing 218 yards passing and 215 yards rushing. Michigan was especially effective on third downs, converting six of 18.
Sophomore linebacker David Reese was a positive standout, leading the team with 11 tackles. So were Dawson and CJ Henderson, who grabbed the second pick six. Jachai Polite, Taven Bryan and Cece Jefferson all grabbed sacks, while Jordan Sherit grabbed two.
But he couldn’t help when Michigan punctuated the game with a sack in the end zone that was recovered for a touchdown with under two minutes to play.
McElwain was clear that the Gators missing 10 players due to suspensions — including starting running back Jordan Scarlett and star wideout Antonio Callaway — probably didn’t help much.
Florida will suit up again next Saturday at home against Northern Colorado. For now, McElwain and several players are looking at what happened against Michigan as something to quickly learn from and forget, even though they admittedly won’t be able to. The loss dropped Florida to 0-4 all-time against Michigan and snapped its 27-year opening-day win streak.
“It’s gonna hurt,” McElwain said. “And if it doesn’t, something’s wrong.”
Jefferson agreed, but he’s trying to just take the game for what it was and move on. That was the junior’s message to his teammates after the game.
“Everybody just took it on the chin,” he said, “and we’ve just gotta get ready for next week.”