A real thorn in the side of the Michigan Wolverines in today’s Outback Bowl was Ace Sanders. The receiver/returner for the South Carolina Gamecocks had a huge day in helping his team to a 33-28 win that came in the final 15 seconds. He wasn’t the most flashy performer in this game (that would be Jadeveon Clowney), nor was he the only man on offense to contribute to the win. But Sanders may have been the most important tool in the Gamecocks’ tool box during this game.
For the game, Sanders caught nine passes for 92 yards, caught two touchdowns, and returned a first quarter punt 63 yards for a touchdown. In total, Sanders ended up with 174 total yards on 13 touches.
Sanders was instrumental in the Gamecocks building a double-digit lead in the first half. Sanders’ punt return put the Gamecocks up 14-3 in the first quarter. After a Wolverines touchdown in the second quarter, the Gamecocks answered immediately and it was here that Sanders made his first touchdown catch of the game. That score put the Gamecocks up 21-10.
Sanders became even more vital to the Gamecocks on offense during the fourth quarter. His second touchdown catch, a 31-yard play, put the Gamecocks back in the lead after surrendering the lead late in the third quarter; at the time it was the first Wolverines lead of the game. But it was on the final drive that Sanders was at his most important to the team, and he didn’t even score the winning touchdown.
Sanders made three straight receptions that got the Gamecocks into Wolverines territory. These catches allowed the drive to begin to form. The most crucial of these catches was the first of Sanders’ three straight on the drive. It came on a 4th & 3 for the Gamecocks inside their own 40. Sanders made a six-yard catch and the drive continued. Sanders then made an eight-yard catch near the sidelines and stepped out-of-bounds to stop the clock as there was around a minute left in the game. Then Sanders caught a six-yard pass on what ended up being Connor Shaw‘s last play of the game.
Shaw was pressured and Jibreel Black of the Wolverines even hand both hands on him only to let Shaw get away when he tried to swing Shaw to the ground instead of pulling him down. This allowed Shaw to move to his right and get the pass off to Sanders. The Gamecocks scored the game-winning touchdown five plays later with Dylan Thompson in at quarterback.
Sanders has been a playmaker for the Gamecocks all year and has come up big for them on several occasions. Today ended up being another such occasion. He made the early scores necessary for the Gamecocks to take control of the game, and then made the score & big catches that helped the Gamecocks regain a game they nearly lost. This is his value to his team: he came up clutch when he needed to. And today wasn’t even the first time.