ATLANTA — Minutes after Michigan’s 41-15 Peach Bowl loss to Florida, senior receiver Grant Perry sat in the Wolverines’ locker room, staring into the distance as reporters tried to talk about the game. Midway through his blank-faced, one-line answers, a reporter asked Perry to put his feelings into words.
“How do I feel? How does it look like I feel?” Perry said as the reporter began to walk off. “I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just not in the best mood.”
After Saturday’s showing, it’s hard to blame him. Michigan was offered the opportunity to beat a top-10 team and wash away the taste of last month’s 62-39 loss to Ohio State. Instead, it felt like Groundhog Day for anyone who has been around the program for the past decade.
Five weeks ago, the Wolverines’ biggest stars sat in a cramped annex of Ohio Stadium, lost for words, as they often are after big games on big stages. At the time, junior quarterback Shea Patterson insisted the season could still be categorized as a success.
On Saturday, senior tackle Jon Runyan was asked whether that categorization remains the case.
“By our goals and standards, I don’t really think it was,” Runyan said. “We lost three really key games at times that we needed it.”
Elsewhere, sophomore receiver Tarik Black exuded the same frustration. Sophomore running back Christian Turner had no answers. Explanations for the loss — like in Columbus — were few and far between in the Michigan locker room, perhaps worn out by the repetition of it all. On the other side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Gators were able to use their outside perspective to provide some answers.
“Just the passing game,” said receiver Van Jefferson when asked what weaknesses Florida saw on film. “We seen Ohio State really expose them in the passing game … and it just looked they were exposing them in the secondary so that’s what we tried to take advantage of.”
Junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was more blunt.
“I don’t know how they prepared,” Gardner-Johnson said. “But I don’t think they prepared too well.”
But whatever the reason for Michigan’s loss, the bigger problem is that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they were embarrassed — for the third consecutive bowl game and seventh consecutive time against a top-10 opponent.
A single glimpse at the Gators’ locker room is enough to dismiss any claims that these games don’t matter. While the Wolverines could barely put their emotions into words, Florida filled the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with whoops and hollers.
Senior tight end C’yontai Lewis sat on top of a speaker, a ‘Peach Bowl champions’ t-shirt squeezed over his shoulder pads. In between celebratory singing breaks with his teammates, he explained what the Gators’ win meant.
“It’s all about building the future,” Lewis said. “That’s what we did today, we set the path for the future.”
“It elevates it (the program),” added junior wide receiver Van Jefferson. “… Now that this has happened, Florida’s back on the map.”
Michigan, meanwhile, is desperately clinging to its precarious place on that map. Twelve months ago, Jefferson was destined for Ann Arbor. He, along with Patterson, looked for transfer options after Ole Miss’ bowl ban, and the Wolverines were his top choice until an issue with his grades prevented the switch.
Instead, he ended up in Gainesville, Fla., a turn that now looks like a blessing in disguise. Thinking back on Saturday, Jefferson called it the “best decision” he’s ever made. Future recruits can see that and replicate Jefferson’s decision — without initially preferring the Wolverines.
Last month, fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich tried to convince reporters that was not the case.
“What we’ve built here and what we’re continuing to build is a powerhouse,” Winovich said. “The Michigan that I’m leaving is a Michigan that’s competitive in this trajectory, that’s — the sky is the limit. Not to quote Buzz Lightyear, but it’s infinity and beyond.”
But on Saturday, Winovich had no choice but to reel back his words.
“In hindsight, coming to Michigan, I maybe underestimated the amount of time and effort it would take to get over that hump.”
The Wolverines are undoubtedly in a better place now than when Winovich committed in 2013. But that hump — 10-3 with failures when it matters most — is impossible to ignore. All you need to realize it is a few minutes in the Michigan locker room.