The Michigan Wolverines were missing some of their best players in the 2018 Peach Bowl on Saturday afternoon. Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, and Karan Higdon all sat it out, with an eye on their NFL futures.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who declared his intentions to enter the NFL Draft and his intentions to play in his final game with the Florida Gators at the same time in late November? He played.
He played well, in fact.
And he keyed a 41-15 blowout of Michigan that ranks among the best bowl performances in Florida history with an individual performance also among the best in a bowl in program history.
Gardner-Johnson collected two second-half interceptions, the first a play that put the Gators in gear for a 28-5 run in the second half and the second a pick-six after a safety that closed out the scoring on the day. It was his second such bowl performance with two picks and a pick-six, after he accomplished that same feat as a freshman against Iowa in the 2017 Outback Bowl.
And as good as he was, the Florida offense may have been better.
Lining up against one of the best defenses in college football — maybe the best, at least prior to it being immolated by Ohio State in late November — could have daunted the Gators. Instead, Dan Mullen called a brilliant game in which Florida used a variety of playmakers and attack angles to ring up 257 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and another 173 yards through the air via the arm of Feleipe Franks — who became the first Florida player since Tim Tebow to score a passing and rushing touchdown in a bowl game, and narrowly missed leading the Gators in rushing yards, picking up 74 with sacks included.
And Franks — named the Most Outstanding Player of the Peach Bowl — missed that feat because even one of the few Mullen misfires in this game turned out to not be damaging at all.
One play after a trick play involving Van Jefferson throwing to Franks resulted in a third and 20, Lamical Perine bolted through the Michigan defense on a 53-yard touchdown jaunt to put the Gators up by three touchdowns and add a second six on the day to his first-half receiving touchdown.
With that sort of production happening on one side of the ball, Florida keeping Michigan in check on the other was an ingredient for a blowout.
The Wolverines — who ran for 215 yards on Florida in a much-hyped 2017 season opener — mustered just 71 yards on the ground, and saw Shea Patterson harassed by the Florida pass rush all day. Patterson managed to throw for 206 yards and averaged almost 11 yards per completion, but his picks were each exquisitely painful, and what would have been his second touchdown of the day slipped out of the hands of towering Tarik Black early in the fourth quarter.
And when what was a touchdown at first blush was overruled, Jim Harbaugh chose to kick a field goal to shave the Florida lead to two possessions rather than try a touchdown to cut it to 10 points.
The Gators responded to that with the drive that resulted in the Perine touchdown, cementing their dominance on the day — and a win that caps a fantastic first season under the direction of Mullen.
One wonders how much better it can get for the Gators from here.