Best of 2016 Orange Bowl: No. 11 Florida State squeaks out 33-32 victory over No. 6 Michigan in thriller

Best of 2016 Orange Bowl: No. 11 Florida State squeaks out 33-32 victory over No. 6 Michigan in thriller

Michigan got rocked moments before kickoff when it was announced Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers would miss the game after tweaking a hamstring in practice on Thursday.

Peppers warmed up for tonight’s game but opted not to play. That was a physical and psychological blow for Michigan not to have its best player, who impacts in all three phases of the game.

Michigan stumbled early, falling behind 17-3 after the first quarter. But the Wolverines re-grouped and fought back, drawing to 20-15 entering the fourth quarter. Then, Michigan scored 15 points in 3:25 of the fourth quarter to take a 30-27 lead with 1:57 left in the game.

But FSU had an answer, with Deondre Francois hitting Nyqwan Murray for a 12-yard TD pass with less than a minute left to win the game. Michigan returned the blocked PAT for two points to cut FSU’s lead to two, 33-32. But the Wolverines’ last drive got snuffed out. The Seminoles finished the year winning seven of their last eight; conversely Michigan lost three of its last four. In a game as close as this, you have to think Peppers would have made a difference.

Oh, well.

BEST OF THE ORANGE BOWL

Best play: There were many in this instant classic. There was a pick six by Wolverine LB Mike McCray. A 30-yard TD run by Wolverine RB Chris Evans that gave Michigan its only lead of the game. But we have to go with Deondre Francois hitting Nyqwan Murray for a 12-yard TD pass with 36 seconds left in the tilt on a third-and-nine. The winning TD was setup by a 66-yard kickoff return by FSU’s Keith Gavin, which came on the heels of Evans’ TD run.

Best player: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook came into tonight’s game as a star among stars. And, he didn’t disappoint. Cook ran 20 times for 145 yards with a TD. In the process, he became the No. 2 all-time rusher in ACC annals. Cook had a 71-yard run and 45-yard reception. He could have opted out of the game to protect himself from injury, but Cook wanted to play. And he delivered big-time for his team. Bravo!

Best moment: Let’s go with the 66-yard kickoff return by the Seminoles’ Keith Gavin. He looked liked he was going to down the ball for a touchback but opted to run the ball out. Gavin broke a tackle and split a raft of defenders before being wrestled to the ground. Four plays later, the Seminoles scored the winning TD.

Best stat: 16, tackles for loss by Florida State, which was a season high. Time and again, FSU got after Michigan and made negative plays in the run game.

GRADES

Offense: C. The Michigan rushing game struggled again, finishing with a season-low 89 yards. In each of their three losses, the Wolverines had less than 100 yards rushing. With the ground game basically ineffective, QB Wilton Speight needed to sling the ball early and often. And he was solid, hitting 21-of-38 passes for 163 yards with a TD and pick. It didn’t help that TE Jake Butt left the game with injury in the first half. Still, Michigan did most of its damage throwing the ball vs. a Florida State secondary that was wracked by injury to help the Wolverines score 26 second-half points and nearly pull off the victory.

Defense: B. The unit played well most of the night, as Florida State QB Deondre Francois hit just 9-of-27 passes for 222 yards with two TDs and a pick. But the defense got gashed a few times by FSU star RB Dalvin Cook. Michigan was No. 12 in the nation in rush defense (116.7 ypg) but FSU had 149 yards rushing. Still, the Wolverines allowed only 371 yards. Not bad. And the unit also scored a TD on a pick six.

Special teams: B+. Allowing that 66-yard kickoff return to set up the winning TD for FSU was inexcusable. But Kenny Allen hit all three of his field-goal attempts, and Michigan ran back a blocked PAT for two points on FSU’s last TD. Plus, Michigan recovered a first-half fumble on a kickoff to set up a field goal. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough.

FINAL THOUGHTS

You get the feeling Michigan is so close to a big breakthrough. Jim Harbaugh was gone 10-3 each of his two seasons back at his alma mater, but he has yet to lead the Wolverines to a Big Ten title or playoff appearance. Heck, Harbaugh hasn’t even led Michigan to a finish higher than third in the Big Ten East.

This game was a nice measuring stick for Michigan going against a fully mature Florida State program that teems with athletic ability. The Wolverines need more speed and big-play skill on offense. Still, Michigan can build on this and move forward with confidence.

A look toward 2017: Michigan has plenty of mojo moving into Year Three under Jim Harbaugh, who will try to guide the program to its first Big Ten title since 2004. The Wolverines will have plenty of building blocks back but will lose 18 senior starters, so there will be some transition.

The offense will need some pass-catchers to step up with wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson gone along with tight end Jake Butt. Grant Perry, Maurice Ways and Eddie McDoom, among others, should step up at WR and there are myriad options at TE. QB Wilton Speight will be back, but will he get pressed for the job? Chris Evans may be the top RB with De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac gone. The o-line will have just two starters back. This unit needs to improve big-time.

The defense will need a lot of work under dynamic coordinator Don Brown. The line loses a lot, including Chris Wormley, Matthew Godin, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton. And the secondary will lose a lot, too, including CBs Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis. The linebacker unit will need to be reworked with Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray gone. And will do-it-all Jabrill Peppers turn pro even though he has two years of eligibility left? Most think he will.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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