Friday January 1st, 2016

Not long ago, Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan signaled an end to the program’s dark days. The Wolverines had languished in mediocrity for far too long, failing to win double-digit games in every season since 2011 and limping to a 5–7 campaign under former coach Brady Hoke in ’14. To fans, Harbaugh’s return to the Big House was one giant step toward reigniting the glory of Michigan football. But most everyone outside of Ann Arbor knew that turnaround wouldn’t occur overnight.

Harbaugh evidently works on a faster timeline. On Friday the head coach put a bow on a remarkable first season at Michigan with a strong 41–7 demolition of No. 19 Florida in the Citrus Bowl. The program’s first bowl victory since 2012 cemented a 10-win campaign as Harbaugh doubled the Wolverines’ win total from their final season under Hoke.

It seems Michigan fans won’t have to wait patiently for Harbaugh’s rebuild after all. The Wolverines are already back, and a dominant performance against the Gators positions Harbaugh’s program with loads of momentum heading into the off-season. In terms of making a statement, his first year ended with an exclamation point.

The final score in the Citrus Bowl didn’t tell the story of the game’s first half. Florida and No. 14 Michigan looked evenly matched during a deadlocked defensive battle through a quarter and a half. But with 8:49 to play before halftime, Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a 31-yard touchdown toss to receiver Jehu Chesson. That long ball broke open a 7–7 game and sparked a streak of 34 unanswered Wolverines points.

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Michigan’s domination was two-fold: Its defense limited Florida in every facet of its offensive game plan. Meanwhile, the Wolverines moved the ball with relative ease with Rudock at the helm.

The Gators’ troubles started early when they turned the ball over on a botched fake field goal on their first possession. Later quarterback Treon Harris tossed an interception in the red zone during the second quarter after Michigan had built a 14–7 lead, sucking the air out of Florida’s rally. The Gators’ offense hadn’t been the same since losing starting quarterback Will Grier to a season-ending suspension in October, and that trend continued in the Citrus Bowl. Florida managed just 5.25 yards per play and 273 yards of total offense, and Harris completed just eight of his 21 passes.

Florida’s defense, which stood up well in the SEC this year, couldn’t stop Michigan’s offense. The Wolverines’ 41 points were the most given up by the Gators under first-year head coach Jim McElwain. His team allowed Rudock to complete 20 of 31 passes for 278 yards with three touchdowns. The senior ended the day as just the second Michigan quarterback ever to pass for 3,000 yards in a single season. Perhaps most importantly, Harbaugh’s offense stayed on the field. Seven of the Wolverines’ nine drives went for eight plays or more, and they dominated time of possession 36:13–21:22.

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That complete performance helped Harbaugh emerge from what many had billed as the Overachievement Bowl. Like the new Michigan coach, McElwain had taken his Florida program to unexpected heights during his first season at the helm, winning 10 games and reaching the SEC title game. But only one team left the Citrus Bowl with the look and feel of a conference contender, and that team doesn't play in the SEC.

After the win, Rudock, who transferred from Iowa last off-season, reflected on the Michigan turnaround he helped engineer. “Ten wins is a big, big landmark to make,” Rudock told ESPN. “I’m just so proud of our guys.” That landmark is big for Michigan, and it proves the program’s “rebuilding” might already be over. Now Harbaugh’s task is adding to the new foundation set during his first season.

Harbaugh is aided by the fact that Wolverines enter the off-season with momentum, something noticeably absent from Hoke’s final campaign in 2014. At the end of that year, few expected to mention Michigan in the same breath as Ohio State and Michigan State just one season later. But we’re already having that conversation. That’s a testament to the magic taking place at Michigan under Harbaugh, and Friday’s win in the Citrus Bowl is just the extra touch Wolverine fans needed after the coach’s stellar first season.

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