Published November 20, 2014
Mississippi State displayed a program and a coach on the rise with an overwhelming performance in the Gator Bowl.
For Michigan, it could have been the final blow for its beleaguered coach.
Chris Relf accounted for four touchdowns, Vick Ballard ran for three scores and coach Dan Mullen's 21st-ranked Bulldogs routed Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines 52-14 on Saturday.
The 38-point drubbing was the worst bowl loss in Michigan's storied history and might have sealed Rodriguez's future. His three-year tenure has been tainted by consecutive losing seasons, NCAA sanctions and late-season slides.
Rodriguez said all the speculation about his job was "the elephant in the room" during meetings and practices, but insisted his team never "cheated the University of Michigan a day of work."
But defensive tackle Mike Martin said the uncertainty clearly affected Rodriguez.
"He's human, he's a man, a constant stress is going to wear you down," Martin said.
Asked whether he thinks he will return next season, Rodriguez replied, "You're asking the wrong person." This much is certain: Athletic director Dave Brandon couldn't have been pleased with Michigan's performance Saturday.
"After traveling back in the next day or two, I plan to sit down with coach Rodriguez to go through the evaluation I've been talking about for months," Brandon said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press a few hours after the Gator Bowl. "I probably won't have more to say until the back half of the week."
The Wolverines (7-6) were out of this one early, done in again by a defense that made a middle-of-the-pack Southeastern Conference offense look like a juggernaut.
"Disappointed, frustrated, and I think if you ask the players, they'll say the same thing," Rodriguez said.
Relf and Ballard posed problems all day. Relf completed 18 of 23 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns, and added 30 yards and a score on the ground. Ballard ran for 76 yards. The Bulldogs (9-4) finished with 485 yards, had five fourth-down conversions and capped a surprising season with a dominant victory.
"We went from average to good and now we want the ability to go from good to great," said Mullen, the second-year coach who went 5-7 in his first year in Starkville, Miss. "Hopefully that (win) catapults us into the step from good to great."
Denard Robinson, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, played every snap for Michigan and was dynamic as usual. He threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 58 yards. But he got little help.
Now, he might get a new coach.
Brandon has not offered any public support for Rodriguez, who fell to 15-22 and 1-11 against ranked teams. Brandon has said he will evaluate Rodriguez after the game. Speculation has been that he will fire Rodriguez and try to hire Stanford coach and former Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh to lead college football's winningest program.
Rodriguez's buyout dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million Saturday. Asked what case he will make to save his job, Rodriguez said "None."
"Dave's been around. He's doing his evaluation. I don't know when we're going to meet," Rodriguez added.
Michigan lost six of its final eight games.
The Wolverines scored on two of their first three possessions — Robinson created big plays with his arm and his feet — but they did little the rest of the day. They only punted once, but it was blocked. They also missed a field goal, had two turnovers and failed to convert on fourth down five times.
"We started off. We didn't finish," Robinson said.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, scored just about time it had the ball. The Bulldogs welcomed the warm weather and figured the 75-degree heat would work in their favor.
It was hard to tell how much it affected Michigan, which allowed 34 or more points for the eighth time in the last nine games.
The Bulldogs scored on all five possessions in the first half and led 31-14 at the break. Relf, wearing No. 36 to honor teammate Nick Bell, who died of cancer during the season, hooked up with Arceto Clark for a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter and hit Ricco Sanders for a 15-yard strike late in the second. In between, Relf ran for a score.
"It puts us in a good spot, something we can build off as a team," Relf said.
Ballard scored from 2, 1 and 7 yards as the Bulldogs pounded Michigan inside and out, running for 204 yards.
Mississippi State fans' clanging cowbells took over the stadium long before the score got out of hand, drowning out the boos from Michigan's faithful.
Michigan fans were long gone by the time Mullen got drenched with water and defensive end Pernell McPhee took a victory lap with the Gator Bowl trophy. The celebration was just getting started, too.
"I've been involved in a lot of games and this is easily as big as any of them," Mullen said. "It's such an accomplishment. It is such an accomplishment to our young men. I told them it's a good thing in your life to be credited as an overachiever. That means as an individual you achieve more than anybody thought was possible."
The Gator Bowl was sponsored by Progressive.
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.