Back in September, I didn't think I'd get the chance to write a 13th edition of Kicking the Tires. K-State's atrocious start made bowl eligibility look like a pipe dream. But after a game effort against Baylor that led to K-State wining five of its final six games, the Wildcats find themselves facing the Michigan Wolverines in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Momentum-wise, Michigan's season was the inverse of K-State's. Though Big Blue's 5-0 start hardly inspired a ton of confidence with close wins against Akron and Connecticut, it was still a damn sight better than the Purple's 2-3 start. And Michigan's sixth game, a heartbreaking 43-40 loss in four overtimes against Penn State, wasn't the type of loss that typically wrecks a season. But while K-State's close loss to Baylor was the last time K-State would lose for a month -- and easier schedule had something to do with that -- Michigan's tough luck in Happy Valley was the beginning of a trend.
After recovering to rout Big 10 doormat Indiana, the Wolverines were suffocated by in-state rival Michigan State, lost an ugly battle against mediocre Nebraska, and needed three overtimes to beat fast-fading Northwestern. The Wolverines were competitive against solid Iowa and very good Ohio State, but both games still went into the loss side of the ledger.
Players to Watch
Passing: Jake Waters, 138-233-9, 2,198 yards, 9.4 yards/attempt, 15 TDs, 183.2 yards/game
Rushing: John Hubert, 182 carries, 968 yards, 5.3 yards/carry, 9 TDs, 87.0 yards/game
Receiving: Tyler Lockett, 71 receptions, 1,146 yards, 16.1 yards/reception, 8 TDs, 104.2 yards/game
Passing: Shane Morris, 5-9-1, 65 yards, 7.2 yards/attempt, 0 TDs, 16.2 yards/game, 12 TDs, 58.7 yards/game
Rushing: Fitzgerald Toussaint, 183 carries, 646 yards, 3.5 yards/attempt
Receiving: Jeremy Gallon, 80 receptions, 1,284 yards, 16.0 yards/reception, 9 TDs, 107.0 yards/game
How about the similarity between Lockett and Gallon?
As Michigan coach Brady Hoke noted this week, Morris will start in place of Devin Gardner, as a long season behind an offensive line that allowed almost three sacks per game finally caught up to the Wolverines' starting quarterback. To give you an idea of how often Michigan throws the ball, Gardner was 208-345-11 for 2,960 yards (8.6 yards/attempt before sack adjustment) and 21 TDs.
As Ian Boyd noted earlier this week, Michigan's offense is based on West Coast passing concepts -- timing, ball-control passing -- with a dose of power rushing. Morris is a highly regarded recruit, but given that he's a true freshman and threw an interception in only nine attempts this season, I wouldn't be surprised to see a heavier dose of Toussaint than Michigan customarily shows. If Toussaint stays around that season average of 3.5 yards per carry, then that's good news for K-State. Of course, if K-State plays like it did against Oklahoma's rushing attack, then that could be very bad news indeed.
On this front, Ty Zimmerman's return is crucial. Zimmerman is very much a poor man's version of Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu, a big, physical safety who can play his run responsibilities and play them well. If Zimmerman is back and close to 100 percent, I feel pretty confident about K-State's ability to keep Toussaint and Michigan's run game in check. After that, it comes down to whether Ryan Mueller and the rest of the defensive line can get pressure on Morris against Big Blue's suspect offensive line.
K-State Advanced Stats
Offensive F/+: 18th
Defensive F/+: 51st
Special Teams F/+: 22nd
Offensive S&P+: 17th
Rushing S&P+: 19th
Passing S&P+: 13th
Standard Downs S&P+: 14th
Passing Downs S&P+: 26th
Drive Efficiency: 19th
Defensive S&P+: 63rd
Rushing S&P+: 80th
Passing S&P+: 49th
Standard Downs S&P+: 59th
Passing Downs S&P+: 66th
Drive Efficiency: 57th
Michigan Advanced Stats
Offensive F/+: 35th
Defensive F/+: 35th
Special Teams F/+: 61st
Offensive S&P+: 40th
Rushing S&P+: 66th
Passing S&P+: 20th
Standard Downs S&P+: 55th
Passing Downs S&P+: 28th
Drive Efficiency: 35th
Defensive S&P+: 47th
Rushing S&P+: 28th
Passing S&P+: 51st
Standard Downs S&P+: 37th
Passing Downs S&P+: 57th
Drive Efficiency: 43rd
Most of the time when I put these things together, there are two or three obvious matchup advantages or disadvantages that I pick out while I'm putting the numbers together. In this case, not much jumps out at me. K-State is better on offense and worse on defense. Maybe with Gardner unable to go and Zimmerman's return, K-State's defense gets a boost against an offense that at least theoretically should be able to have some success against it.
At its root, though, this game is about which team's system translates better. K-State is built to take advantage of smaller, faster Big 12 defenses, because Big 12 defenses are built to stop spread passing attacks; on defense, K-State's Cover 4 is designed to prevent big plays and make opposing quarterbacks consistently complete short(ish) passes through small windows. Conversely, Michigan combines short, timing passing routes with a power-based rushing attack, because BIG 10.
Neither offense was probably looking at a particularly big day as it was. K-State probably won't be able to overwhelm Michigan's front seven with its rushing concepts, and the Wolverines will make stopping Tyler Lockett a priority. And the Wolverines, with a talented-but-untested quarterback starting and the return of Zimmerman to deal with, will likely have to sustain long drives to score. This game could be over in two-and-a-half hours.
In what shapes up as a slugfest, turnovers and big plays will loom large in this game. Can Lockett get loose behind Michigan's defense? And can Waters find him if he does? Ditto for Gallon and Morris for Michigan. And against a stout Michigan secondary, can Waters avoid throwing to the wrong team? Can K-State bait Morris into a few bad throws?
I'm far from confident about this matchup. But I'm going to go with a homer pick, because I really want K-State to end this bowl-game losing streak, if for no other reason than so we can just stop talking about it.
K-State 30, Michigan 24