Since many Michigan fans might not know anything about our bowl opponent, Kansas State, we thought it'd be a good idea to ask them some questions. Plus, it saves time on research.
Jon Morse is one of the writers for Bring on the Cats, an absolutely fantastic Kansas State blog here on SB Nation. He agreed to do a little Q&A with us about the Wildcats, the upcoming bowl match-up, and even what he thinks of the Wolverines.
Q: Kansas State was almost on top of the world in 2012 with Collin Klein engineering a Heisman campaign and the Wildcats going 11-1, their loss to Baylor keeping them out of the national championship. Then, to start the 2013 season, they lost to FCS North Dakota State and ended up going 7-5. Michigan fans know all too well this feeling (see 2006 followed by 2007 where we lost to Appalachian State). Besides the obvious--that Klein graduated--what in your estimation was the reason for the drop-off? Generally speaking, what changed between 2012 and 2013?
Jon Morse: Two major things changed, outside of losing Klein. One, we also lost ten starters on defense, including Arthur Brown. Senior safety Ty Zimmerman was the only returning starter, and as a result the defense took a long time to gel. Two, we had two quarterbacks with very, very different skill sets and the coaching staff didn't seem to have a grasp on how or when to use them; this was another situation that just needed time to resolve itself (though there are still some speed bumps).
Q: A 10-2 Kansas State squad was not given an invitation to a BCS bowl in 2011, where Michigan faced Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, much to the chagrin of Wildcat fans. Yet Kansas State did garner a BCS bowl invitation in 2012, playing Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. For this 2013 match-up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, I've noticed that some Kansas State fans are approaching the game with the desire for some type of "revenge" against Michigan, even though the two programs have never played each other before. Are Kansas State fans blaming Michigan because the Sugar Bowl denied the Wildcats an invitation in 2011? Why do some Kansas State fans feel the need to exact revenge on Michigan?
Jon: There were some rumors that the reason Virginia Tech was taken instead of Kansas State was that Michigan didn't want to play the Wildcats and it wasn't because the Wolverines were scared, if you catch my meaning. I have no idea whether there's any truth to those rumors or not, but we are after all dealing with the Angriest Fanbase in America. We've got plenty of valid reasons for that -- there have actually only been a handful of times a highly-ranked AQ-conference team which was still eligible for the BCS has been passed over, and yet almost all of them have involved K-State -- and we're so used to it that nowadays every single slight has to have some nefarious purpose behind it.
We've also got a sort of innate need in our DNA to dig at blue-blood schools resulting from all the years of futility. We're rapidly approaching the tipping point where most people's actual memories (as opposed to book learnin') only contain K-State as a perennial top-25 program, and when we teeter past that point I expect a lot of this sort of thing to die down. Until then all the Michigans and USCs and Alabamas and such are The Enemy.
Having said all that, let me stress that for the most part we understand that Michigan didn't get into the Sugar Bowl ahead of K-State; the real "revenge fantasy" is against Virginia Tech, not the Wolverines. What you're seeing is really more in good fun than anything; a way to spice up the contest.
Q: Many Michigan fans might not be familiar with the style of football that Kansas State plays. Talk about your team offensively. What kind of offense does Kansas State run and what can Michigan fans expect to see from that unit?
Jon: The one driving principle behind K-State's offense is this: slow the game down and limit the number of chances the other team gets on offense. The Wildcats will try to eat clock, chew up as much time as they can, and to steal a phrase, "matriculate the ball down the field". That doesn't mean that the Wildcats won't suddenly rear back and strike quickly; you've probably seen highlights from the Oklahoma game, after all.
Beyond that generality, what you're going to see is a lot of multiple-option football in various flavors. K-State will run zone-read, they'll run straight option, they'll run play-action, and sometimes they'll even just run a straight hand-off or a pure drop-back pass play. They're extremely versatile. The one thing you'll want to watch out for, though, is our favorite: people have made fun of Rod Gilmore for years over his over-use of the term "run-pass option", but K-State's actually got precisely that. A couple or more times a game you'll see a play which looks like a designed QB run off-tackle, and suddenly the quarterback stops cold and just lobs a little jump pass over the oncoming tacklers.
Q: Are there any particular players on offense that Michigan fans should watch out for? Who are the standouts and what do they bring to the table?
Jon: Segue! You're probably at least superficially aware that the offensive identity of the Wildcats is dependent on who's taking the snap. There's a sort of belief that if sophomore quarterback Daniel Sams is in it's a run and if junior quarterback Jake Waters is in it's a pass, but that's really over-simplification. Sams can throw the ball; he's got a cannon. He's just a little erratic. But he's made some big plays with his arm this year. His strength is in his very deceptive and elusive running ability, and he's able to sneak through the line of scrimmage a lot of the time and burn you like a tailback.
Jake Waters, on the other hand... well, let's be honest and admit that he's a disaster on most designed-QB runs straight into the line of scrimmage, but he's actually quite deadly when scrambling or running the old naked bootleg which used to be a staple of the Snyder offense back in the day. Waters has wheels. He's just not a running back.
Finally, there's an irony here in that running back John Hubert has been vastly more effective all season when in the backfield with Waters than with Sams. Part of that is that Sams probably keeps the ball too often on options, and part of it is that the defense doesn't sell out the run when Waters is behind center.
Q: Talk about the defense. What kind of defensive scheme do the Wildcats run?
Jon: Defensively, K-State runs a 4-3 with a Tampa 2 flavor. There's not a great deal of speed or size on the unit, just a lot of heart and intestines. It's pure assignment football, with a heaping side of attitude.
Q: Any standout defensive players?
Jon: You're definitely going to want to know where #44 is at all times. Ryan Mueller is a former walk-on who has turned into an absolute beast at defensive end, snagging the Big XII Defensive Lineman of the Year award ahead of Texas Longhorn Jackson Jeffcoat. You probably saw clips of his ridiculous strip-and-recover play on Bryce Petty in the Baylor game. He's among the nation's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, and as the cliche goes his motor just never stops.
Senior Blake Slaughter is an effective if unspectacular middle linebacker who I'm afraid we've given a bit of a raw deal this year simply for not being Arthur Brown. He's not the fastest guy out there, but he did lead the team in tackles. Ty Zimmerman is a two-time all-conference safety; we're still not entirely sure whether he'll be able to return in time for the bowl game after an injury suffered against TCU. He's a key, though. He's the captain of the defense when he's out there.
Q: Every team has weaknesses that their opponents can exploit. What in your estimation is the key for Michigan to win this game? What do the Wolverines have to do to beat the Wildcats?
Jon: If you can run the ball effectively, you're off to a good start. That's not always a certain proposition; in some games this year, notably against Baylor, K-State managed to completely stifle the opponent's ground game. In others, they just couldn't stop anyone. Oklahoma was a horrible example. Defensively, you're going to have to shut down all big-play options one way or another. Again, K-State's done different things all year here. Against Oklahoma, Waters just threw bomb after bomb to Tyler Lockett, who quite honestly just flat-out clowned the Sooner secondary all day. Dude was twenty yards behind the secondary on two different touchdown receptions. Against Texas Tech and Kansas, Snyder just unleashed John Hubert and the Cats ran wild.
Honestly, Michigan's best bet is if they can force K-State to do one thing or the other, and those examples explain it. Waters and Lockett went insane against Oklahoma because the Sooners let them; K-State didn't need to throw the ball much against Texas Tech and Kansas because neither team was even remotely up to the task of stopping the run. But if you force the Wildcats to go one way, they tend to clench and make mistakes.
Q: Let's talk programs for a second. How is Bill Snyder doing as the Kansas State head coach? What were expectations coming into this season and how has he lived up to them (or failed to live up to them)?
Jon: Well. I mean, Bill Snyder is Bill Snyder. Up in Ann Arbor, you've had guys like Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. We've only ever had this one guy. You may have heard what the K-State program was like before he arrived. So even when things aren't awesome, it's hard to criticize.
I'm going to anyway.
Here's the conundrum. We expected to go 7-5/8-4 this year... because we thought the players weren't going to be up to snuff. We thought that replacing 10 guys on defense would be just too much. Even with the loss of Collin Klein, we thought that with basically the entire rest of the offense returning and two very, very talented quarterbacks fighting for the starting gig, this was going to be a year where K-State scored a ton of points but couldn't stay in games. What we got instead was a team where the athletes were good enough, where the defense was more than adequate, and where the offense appeared (and still sometimes appears) totally dysfunctional. K-State lost five games, and all five were winnable.
For whatever reason, the coaching staff itself was somewhat dysfunctional this year, at least in terms of in-game decision-making. With Bill Snyder, you can never assume too much; there's every likelihood that many of the decisions which we as fans found questionable or even insane were in fact completely deliberate moves designed to do something other than win football games. But there seemed to be a consistent pattern of just not having any idea when to use Sams or Waters. There were countless attempts to have one of the two do things which they're just not suited for. That's fine when you're winning 35-7 in the third quarter. It's not so wonderful when you're within a score of Baylor in the fourth quarter.
And then there was Oklahoma, when the staff flat refused, faced with a shaky freshman quarterback who hadn't proven to anyone's satisfaction anywhere that he could win a football game with his arm, to bring an extra defender up to stop the run. Maddening.
Q: One of most fun things we can do for our readers as opposing teams is to talk about each other on our blogs. What is your general impression of Michigan? What, if anything, do you like about the Wolverines - either referring to play on the field, or superficial aspects of the program (i.e. uniforms, tradition, etc.)? Conversely, what is the biggest thing that you hate about Michigan?
Jon: You're going to get different answers to this question depending on who you ask -- I mean, we've got a couple of regulars whose secondary rooting interests are Ohio State and Minnesota and so it's not a surprise that they just hate y'all with an ever-burning fury -- so all I can really do is give you mine.
Me, I hate Ohio State so much that I'm always moderately well-disposed toward the Wolverines. Yes, I know there's a certain arrogance that you all receive along with your official Michigan Man Membership Material, but my experiences with Michigan have really boiled down to one word: dignity. You've got a program which overtly tries to behave with dignity, especially in contrast to the boorish behavior so common to that other school down US 23, and that's the sort of thing I can get behind.
I've also had an enduring respect for Michigan's coaching tradition. Schembechler was a titan when I was a kid. Lloyd Carr is quite possibly the classiest man ever to walk a sideline. And one even has to wonder what Gary Moeller would have accomplished had he not made one little mistake. I wonder what it must be like to be pretty sure you're going to get a good coach to replace the current guy; it's our most enduring fear in Manhattan.
One other thing I like about Michigan, and this is sort of unique to me because I spent a few years blogging about lower-division football because I'm a huge proponent of giving the little guys their due attention, is the Slippery Rock tradition at Michigan Stadium. Really excited that they've been invited to come back to Ann Arbor to play a "home" game again, and I know that if their first visit was any indication you guys will be there in droves to support them.
The only thing I hate about Michigan... well, I don't hate anything about Michigan. I roll my eyes at some of the trappings of Michigan football that smack of arrogance, but they don't offend me so much as amuse me. I roll my eyes at the keys, too. But there's really nothing that gets under my craw at all. Well, I take that back. I didn't like the way the fanbase handled Rich Rodriguez. He probably wasn't the right fit, and it's not like he was winning 11 games a year, but I thought it was especially galling to hire a guy and then expect him to change his coaching philosophy because even when Michigan won they weren't winning "the Michigan way."
And if that's the worst thing I can say about Michigan, then obviously I'm really having to reach to find something, right?
Q: And finally, while we probably both know who you're going to pick, I'll ask this anyway: Who you got?
Jon: This is mostly based on what I've heard from Michigan folks themselves, but I do think the Wildcats are going to win this one, and it might even get ugly. I realize that the offensive line has started to solidify late in the season, but it seems that Michigan's offense is almost entirely dependent on throwing the ball at this stage, and that's the facet of K-State's defense I worry the least about. (Except for three Bryce Petty bombs, the secondary just hasn't been victimized all year.) Conversely, the Michigan defense has seemed to fall apart late, and that's just candy on Halloween for an offense which actually led the Big XII in yards-per-play over the second half of the season. Yes, even more than Baylor. Conservatively, I'm thinking this is a 34-20 type game.
Thanks so much to Jon Morse for taking the time to answer these questions. Again, be sure to check out Bring on the Cats for all your Kansas State football needs!