Game Thirteen Preview: Michigan vs. Kansas State, The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Ed Zurga

Michigan looks to cap its season with a win over the steady Kansas State wildcats in Arizona

Michigan vs. Kansas State

10:15pm, ESPN

Enemy Blog: Bring on the Cats

Michigan's roller coaster season is finally drawing toward its closing stretch. The Wolverines have endured heartbreaking losses and walked into devastating blowouts. Michigan has survived against teams that it should have ran off the field and lost against teams that it had more talent than. And even through all of that there have been a few moments in which Michigan has looked like something else entirely. When everything lined up and Michigan's offense hit its stride the Wolverines were capable of putting up points against almost anybody, and those two 40+ point performances that bookend the season stand out as the ultimate glimpse of what Team 134 might have been if not for that thing we call life, which always has a good idea what it will do with your best laid plans.

So now the Wolverines travel to the desert and I sit here with mixed emotions. Yes, there is more Michigan football, something that unquestionably makes me happy even when all logic and reason tell me I should probably save myself three hours of spiked blood pressure and the accompanying heartache. But what is this game really? It is an exhibition game thousands of miles away from the midwest in which Michigan will try to beat a team it has never played before while breaking a true freshman in at quarterback.

Maybe that is the wrong way to look at it. Michigan has a chance to play one more game for its seniors, it gets an extra month of practice for its young players, and it can top 2013 off with a win. Regardless of my feelings on a bowl game played in December named after a sports bar, the game is happening. I guess we should take a look at it.

When Michigan has the ball

(KSU Positional Previews: Secondary, Linebackers, Defensive Line)

Did you spend most of November openly wondering how much better Michigan would be if it just pulled Devin Gardner and gave Shane Morris the starting job? Congrats, you get the opportunity to be proven wrong live in a second rate exhibition game.

For all of Michigan's offensive woes this season, the one thing that often kept the team's head above water was Devin Gardner. He was one of the most productive offensive players in the conference, and his size and athleticism were great tools to allow him to keep the chains moving when things broke down. Sure, there were some bad turnovers and mistakes, but when it came down to it Gardner was Michigan's most important player while also being its most physically beaten player — he took as many sacks in November as 59 teams gave up all season, and he finished the Ohio State game on a broken foot.

Now Michigan is rolling the dice with a freshman that has nine career pass attempts to his name. First and foremost this is going to put a lot of pressure on Michigan's run game to take another step forward in development after a couple positive outings late in the season. With another month to practice and get healthy, Michigan's offensive line should be in the best position possible to sustain the success of the OSU game against Kansas State. Thankfully, KSU has some issues up front. The Wildcat defensive line is susceptible to inside zone runs because of an over reliance on slanting into gaps, and Michigan should be able to take advantage of this.

How will things go when Michigan passes the ball? Well, that is the million dollar question.

Here is what we know about Shane Morris. He was a four-star recruit that lost most of his senior season to illness. He didn't enroll early and has only gotten time in a couple games this year. He is lauded for his strong arm, but it isn't entirely clear if the game has begun to slow down for him. Quoth Jehu Chesson:

"He does a good job, you know, reading the defense, you know, getting the ball to us. A lot of people talk about his arm; he has a good arm, great arm, um, uh, [shakes head]. The other people talk about does he throw the ball too hard. You know, with Shane, whenever he's going to be in the game, or when he's in the game or what, he's going to make the right throws at the right time and the right decisions because that's what a Michigan quarterback is expected to do."

Things that are good to hear about your previously unseen backup freshman quarterback: dude has a cannon.

Things that are not good to hear about your previously unseen backup freshman quarterback: he will make the right throws because, um, that's what Michigan quarterbacks do.

Kansas State doesn't have a lock down secondary, but it does have an all-conference safety that has to salivating at the thought of facing a true freshman in his first start. Michigan has the receiving talent to take advantage of Kansas State on the outside and over the top. Can Morris get the ball there?

Outlook

After a full season and a month of bowl practice, Morris is a true freshman in designation only. He has time in the program and after the Ohio State game it looks like he might have a functional offense around him. The problem is that unlike someone like Christian Hackenberg, Morris has always been a much more developmental prospect than anyone cared to admit. Can he run the offense, read the defense, and make more big plays than mistakes? It is a tall order, but not impossible. Michigan should be able to put together enough of a run game to shield him for the most part. If that happens, I like Michigan's odds to slightly surprise onlookers.

When Kansas State has the ball

(KSU Positional Previews: Offensive Line, Receivers and Tight Ends, Running Backs and Quarterbacks)

While Michigan hasn't met Kansas State on the field before this game, the Wildcats' style will be one that Michigan has seen a lot of already this year in the Big Ten. The Wildcats want to run the ball, and will do so almost two-thirds of the time (478 rush attempts to 286 pass attempts on the season.

The running game is of the solid variety. The Wildcats have the same number of runs over 20 yards as Michigan this season (15), but do so with fewer negative plays (78 TFLs allowed compared to 108 for Michigan). This gives Kansas State a productive rushing unit based around two players.

John Hubert is a small (5'8) workhorse back that leads the team in rushing attempts with 182 while picking up 5.3 ypc. His backup has just 22 carries on the season so Hubert will be the main running back the Wolverines will need to contend with. He isn't flashy but runs patient and well and takes what his line gives him. When he isn't carrying the ball it will likely be QB2 Daniel Sams who has 148 carries and 784 yards on the season. This is compared to just 52 pass attempts, so when Sams is in the game it is likely to be a run.

The other quarterback is Jake Waters a Juco transfer that does the majority of the passing — 233 attempts and 2200 yards on the season — and while he can take off and run (270 yards, 6 TDs), Kansas State will more likely pass the ball with him in the game. He is a solid if somewhat unspectacular quarterback. He completes just a hair under 60 percent of his passes, has 15 touchdowns to nine interceptions, and owes half of his production through the air to receiver Tyler Lockett. Lockett is a top-three receiver statistically in the wide open Big Twelve and exploded in two of Kansas State's biggest games, combining for 25 catches, 515 yards, and three touchdowns in games against Oklahoma and Texas. He also missed the Baylor game and had just 2 catches for 6 yards against Oklahoma State.

Receivers Tramaine Thompson and Curry Sexton both have around 30 catches and 400 yards on the year and will be secondary targets in this passing offense. Michigan's main worry will be shutting down Lockett.

Outlook

The Ohio State game non-withstanding, Michigan's run defense this year has been a strength for this team. The Wolverines spent most of the year allowing right around three yards per carry and limiting opposing teams from breaking long runs. Even after that Ohio State game Michigan has just 10 runs of 20+ yards allowed this season. Kansas State will look to run and if Michigan can keep its advantage up front it will force the Wildcats out of their comfort zone and make Waters/Sams win the game through the air. The availability and deployment of certain safeties will help Michigan a lot in this regard, but the personnel and system is in place for Michigan to make life hard on Kansas State's offense.

When someone is kicking the ball

(KSU Positional Preview: Special Teams)

Kansas State has had injury issues at kicker this year with Jack Cantele missing time late in the season. Overall he has been a solid kicker, having made 11 of 13 on the year. Michigan will roll the dice with Matt Wile, who has very little experience or consistency as the day to day kicker. Punting should be a wash as both Wile and KSU's kicker Mark Krause are good but not great.

Michigan will have to worry about Lockett on kick returns as well as Tramaine Thompson on punt returns. Neither have a return touchdown on the year but both have been a positive force on field position for the Wildcats.

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

- Shane Morris' maturation. Michigan doesn't need a big game from Morris. What it needs is a quiet game in which he takes care of the ball and gets it to Michigan's playmakers in good positions to pick up yards.

- Sustained run. Michigan had success on the ground last time out and with a month off to practice and heal up the Wolverines should be in a position to continue moving the ball on the ground. That will have to happen to get a win in Arizona.

- Win early downs. Kansas State wants to run the ball early and often. If Michigan can put KSU in long second and third down situations it will push the WIldcat offense out of its comfort zone.

Alternate Programming: This game is after 10pm on December 28th, what are you looking for?

Inanimate Object Threat Level - 7: An exhibition game in which Michigan is breaking in a true freshman at quarterback. My hopes aren't up. But alas, Michigan football. Objects beware.

Final Thoughts: I keep reading about this game but it still almost doesn't feel real. A Michigan football game late at night in the waning days of December against Kansas State is like something out of a fever dream. It is a bunch of not-quite-right things thrown together and will probably keep me from getting a good night's sleep this weekend.

With a hobbled Devin Gardner I would expect Michigan to win. Without him I have a harder time coming to that same conclusion. It isn't that Gardner on one leg is that much better than Shane Morris, it is just that in a close game like this against a team that prides itself on ball control and limiting mistakes, the game will come down to a few very important plays where someone is going to have to do something to either A) take advantage of a rare KSU mistake or B) bail Michigan out from its own mistake.

Gardner has been there before, and while he has been up and down this season when it comes to those plays, the weight of experience means something. He has done it before. Morris hasn't, and while the tools are there it is hard to ask someone to be the difference in their first start. It is hard enough just asking that person to not be a liability.

Unfortunately I think Michigan comes up short late in the game, leaving us all with one more "what if" to cap a season full of them.

Kansas State 24 - Michigan 20

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