I had to get rid of it faster than I wanted to, I just laid it up there and he made a great catch. – Ell Roberson
Roberson was describing Derrick Evans’ 10 yard pass reception as K-State took its first lead with less than 2 minutes left and then held on to beat Arizona State in the 2002 Holiday Bowl. For 11 year and 5 years since that night in late December, K-State has come back to Manhattan on the losing end in bowl games.
While bowl games are largely glorified exhibition games, winning them is nice for fans, and it seems as though things are on K-State’s side going into this year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan. First, Michigan is a good match-up for K-State; a solid team that finished 7-5 with several close losses, but certainly not the caliber of K-State’s previous 2 bowl opponents. Second, Michigan will be without their play making quarterback Devin Gardner and instead will be turning over the job to true freshman Shane Morris, who played in a total of 3 games this year with only 9 pass attempts. Third, Michigan has a rich football history and bowl games played in December aren’t a regular occurrence for them. In fact, 85% of Michigan’s bowl appearances have been in January and their last win in a December bowl game was in 1994.
K-State offense vs Michigan defense
The strength of this Michigan team is their defense and the Wolverines have been solid in giving up only .37 points per play while opponents managed 5.2 yards per play. Michigan’s pass defense has been particularly strong, allowing opponents to complete only 55%, only 6.7 yards per attempt, intercepting 4.2% of opponents’ passes, and only allowing TDs on 4.9% of their attempts. Michigan’s rush defense only allowed opponents to gain 3.8 yards per carry against them and opponents scored TDs on only 2.9% of their rushes. Overall Michigan finished as one of the nations Top 30 defenses, but was largely a “bend but don’t break” philosophy that relied on turnovers and forcing FGs instead of TDs in the redzone.
Meanwhile, K-State’s offense finished at 6.3 yards per play and .52 points per play, both good for top 25 in the country. K-State was particularly explosive in the passing game, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt with TDs on 6.6% of attempts. However, turnovers were a problem (especially early in the year), particularly throwing interceptions on 4.5% of attempts. The running game was solid, gaining 4.5 yards per carry and scoring TDs on nearly 6% of the carries. However, a lot of that was due to the use of Sams in the running game and his use dropped significantly over the last few games.
A particular facet to watch will be big/explosive plays. K-State’s offense ranks #21 nationally for explosive drives (19%) or drives that average at least 10 yards per play. Michigan’s defense has been slightly above average (#46, 11%) in this category against opponents. Another key will be turnovers; in K-State’s last 7 games, only against OU did K-State finish negative (-1) in turnover differential, while Michigan finished positive or even in each of their last 8 games.
K-State defense vs Michigan Offense
The strength for Michigan has been their passing game, with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt and TDs on nearly 6% of attempts. However, that was with Devin Gardner at QB and its unlikely that Morris (with only 9 career attempts) will be able to equal that output. Michigan’s running game has been average, gaining only 3.25 yards per carry, but scoring TDs on 5.4% of their carries. Gardner was also Michigan’s 2nd leading rusher, but Michigan is coming off one of their best rushing games of the year against Ohio State. Also, while Fitzgerald Toussaint led the team in rushing, a pair of freshmen, Derrick Green and De’Von Smith, also had some solid games late in the season and could see significant action against K-State. Michigan will likely try to get the ball to Jeremy Gallon (their version of Tyler Lockett) and a very good tight end in Devin Funchess. However, I look for Michigan to rely more heavily on their trio of backs and hope their offensive line can control K-State’s adequate (but not great) defensive front 7 to protect Morris as much as possible.
Notable about Michigan’s offense is that it often has drives that gain no 1st down or TD (3 and outs); 38% gained neither which rated #94 nationally. (K-State’s offense, especially with Waters, had the same critique from K-State fans, but finished at 29%, #45). Michigan’s offense was also not very explosive (drives that average at least 10 yards/play, 12%, #66) nor methodical (drives of at least 10 plays, 14%, #74). However, K-State’s defense forced 3 and outs on less than 25% of drives (#105) and 17% of drives against them were 10 plays or more (#92). The Wildcat defense did finish the season decent in forcing TOs on 2.8% of plays and INTs on 3.8% of attempts, though the Wolverines were pretty strong at protecting the football (2.4% TOs).
Michigan’s key on offense will be running the football to protect Morris. If they can get their trio of backs going and average over 4 yards per carry, the Wolverines will have a great shot to win this game. I’m sure Morris has enough talent, but his lack of game experience going back to even his senior season (he had mono and only played in 6 games) in high school will force Michigan to protect him as much as possible. Even with decent mobility, Gardner was still sacked 35 times, or nearly 9% of the time (#116 nationally) compared to Michigan’s pass attempts. Michigan will do all they can to make the passing game safe for Morris and their ability to run the ball will be a big part of that. If K-State limits the run and makes Morris beat them with his arm, it seems likely he’ll have at least 2-3 big mistakes that K-State can take advantage of.
The return game is an area where K-State could gain a big advantage in this game, though it looks like K-State will be without FG kicker Jack Cantele. Neither team has been great on punt or KO return coverage efficiency, however K-State finished #7 in punt return efficiency and #29 in KO return efficiency while Michigan was #44 and #53 respectively. K-State will still have to be careful when kicking off with a very capable Dennis Norfleet returning for Michigan.
Michigan is a talented opponent, but it seems like there are too many things in K-State’s favor going into this game. If Gardner was healthy for Michigan, this game would likely come down to the 4th quarter. However, I think K-State will force Morris to beat them and the freshman will make too many critical mistakes. K-State’s offense will likely feature more Daniel Sams than we saw late in the season, but Waters will still have several big plays in the passing game to Lockett and Thompson. K-State wins the TO battle, gets a couple of explosive drives out of the offense, and sets up at least 1 score with a big play in the special teams and all of this is too much for Michigan without Gardner.
K-State 38 – Michigan 27