Every coach in existence will tell you there is no such thing as a perfect performance, but most will acknowledge that there are times when a team comes close. On those infrequent occasions they often say (or at least think to themselves), “that’s how you draw it up.”
Well after Michigan's 41-7 thrashing of Florida in the Citrus Bowl those words had to cross Jim Harbaugh’s mind.
“I'd say this was the best game we played all year,” the Wolverines’ first-year headman stated. “It was a great team win. I don't think I've ever seen our offense play better. And our defense was magnificent. Credit to their defensive coach, Greg Mattison… world-class football coach. The three-and-outs, the stops, the play on third down… everybody playing great team defense… it was really good. And then special teams as well. I mean, we were darned nervous about the Florida return game. And they are good at it. And we covered the kicks. I think we only had one punt, but the kickoff coverage was outstanding. We made all our kicks. We executed in every phase on the special teams and I was really pleased. It was a great team win.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain agreed with Harbaugh’s every-phase assessment of the whooping Michigan doled out to his team. He offered no excuses for what was clearly the Gators’ worst performance of the year.
“It was a case of getting your rump kicked in,” McElwain said plainly. “That's what it was. Our energy was good. We came out and played inspired football, and just call it the way it is. They out-physicalled us. No doubt about it. I hate to state the obvious all the time, but they did a great job with their pad level and really took it to us on both sides of the ball.”
“I think we've talked about this all season… that the game is defined by your front guys,” he later added. “And their front guys got the better of ours. And, like I said, give those guys credit. They did a pretty darned good job. “
Needless to say it was a better job that most were expecting. Florida entered the game #6 nationally in total defense – (295.4 yards per game) and #8 in scoring defense (16.5 points per game). Michigan exceeded both of those totals by a wide margin, racking up 503 yards of total offense and scoring more points against the Gators than any team has this season.
“It was a little surprising,” McElwain conceded. “No doubt about it. I know our guys had a good solid plan against them. But I'm going to give them some credit. I thought their quarterback did a great job in the play action game and was real accurate. I think they took advantage of us with their tight ends over the middle, which, if you look back at East Carolina, that was a problem for us as well. I think they did a pretty good job of exploiting some areas in there. And you get beat on a double move, well, they beat us."
The man winning on those double moves was redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson. His five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown came against Vernon Hargreaves, the corner considered by many to be best in the country and a projected top 10 draft pick in. Michigan’s game plan clearly didn’t shy away talented defender, and neither did the tandem of Jake Rudock and Chesson.
“Jehu Chesson, the MVP… he's a great player,” Harbaugh said proudly. “He's one of those guys covering those kicks (on special teams), and it was great to get a post route. It was great to hit that. A lot of tight throws were made today. Florida is so athletic and has so much speed that there are only tiny windows to make those throws and complete those catches. And Jake Rudock was fabulous… on the money today. I mean, darned near flawless. And the receivers made big catches. As soon as they were catching the ball, they were getting hit sometimes and held onto the ball, caught the ball. I don't think there were any drop passes out there today. And then you combine that with the way our offensive line was coming off the ball, I mean, really coming off the ball and on their assignments throughout the game.”
The dominant turn by the offensive line paved the way for arguably the best performance of De'Veon Smith career. His 25 carry, 109 yard showing had Harbaugh comparing Smith to one of the NFL’s top tailbacks during his tenure with the 49ers.
“I've never seen a back like this that breaks as many tackles,” Harbaugh said. “Well, maybe Frank Gore, you know, (that) type of guy in terms of -- but he looks tackled by two, three guys and he burrows and he's churning, and you know, turning, getting two more yards out of every single run today. If it was blocked for two, he got four. If it was blocked for four, he got six. And sometimes even more than two or three… more than what it was blocked for. It's just -- incredible, incredible effort by De'Veon. (He has) got a lot of heart, a lot of drive. And a lot of talent. And be excited about him next year as well.”
And just like that Harbaugh turned the page to a season many are already predicting will be more impressive than his first.
Said Harbaugh, “2016…. this was the beginning of that year.”