K-State started fast and never looked back in a 31-14 win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It was the type of game we saw a lot of in 2012, but not as much in 2013. Even in most of K-State's wins this year, there was something valid to nitpick. The inability to pull away from Louisiana-Lafayette. The uninspired Massachusetts game. The horrible first half against West Virginia. Somehow getting into a shootout with TCU. And the turnovers that prevented a big blowout in the Sunflower Showdown.
Really the only game this season where K-State fans had little to complain about was the 41-7 win over Iowa State. In that game, Iowa State's only trip inside K-State's red zone came as a result of a K-State fumble inside its own red zone.
But as solid as the Iowa State game was, it was still only 17-0 at halftime, and 20-0 after three quarters. And it was Iowa State. While Michigan isn't Michigan this year, K-State wasn't exactly K-State either. And in some ways, this game felt a lot like the Iowa State game, in that K-State mostly dominated from the opening gun, but never built a huge lead. Going to the fourth quarter up 21-6, K-State was in control, but one big play by Michigan or a big mistake by K-State could have made the game interesting quickly.
Neither happened, of course. K-State avoided the turnovers that have plagued the Wildcats all year, and the K-State defense suffocated Michigan's offense. Let's take a look at what I learned by charting this game.
So that Lockett fella is pretty good. Tyler Lockett ended each of K-State's three meaningful first-half drives with touchdown receptions. I know, you're thinking "what?! How do you only have three possessions in a half?!?!" You do when you're coached by Bill Snyder, damn it. More on that in a minute.
In the first half, Lockett was targeted six times, resulting in five completions for 63 yards. So that's 10.5 yards per target, and 0.5 touchdowns per target, a stat I just made up because it's so ridiculous.
Other than a bad drop on a perfectly thrown ball by Daniel Sams in the second half, Lockett had as close to a perfect game as you can get. Twelve targets, 10 completions, 116 yards, 11.6 yards per target, and three touchdown catches. Now consider that he could have had a 31-yard touchdown reception on that throw from Sams, and imagine the numbers.
Seriously, this is just a thing of beauty (nice throw, too, Jake Waters):
And while there's not much better than watching Lockett run a double move and seeing Waters drop the ball right on his hands, it's good to know that Lockett can do the possession work necessary to keep the chains moving. If Waters and Lockett can keep the chains moving consistently on plays like this, 2014 will be fun.
Ball control offense. Earlier in the year, as the quarterback controversy raged, some argued that we need a ground-based attack, led by Daniel Sams at quarterback, to win the time-of-possession battle and protect our defense. Ignoring that our defense graded out better than average -- 43rd in Defensive F/+, 61st in S&P+ -- I never put a lot of stock in this argument. Mostly because winning time of possession is a means to an end (scoring points), and not an end in itself.
But limiting opponent opportunities and minimizing individual tests of execution when you have inferior overall talent* can be helpful. And in the first half, K-State averaged 4:18 for its three scoring drives. Indeed, in K-State's seven sustained drives -- in other words, excluding the last drive of both halves and the short drive after Dante Barnett's interception -- K-State held the ball an average of 4:33.
*That's not a knock on this team or any of its individual players in any way. I'm well aware that the sum total can be greater than the individual parts. But against almost any team, K-State will have less theoretical talent on the field. Michigan is no exception. Fortunately, K-State almost always has more coaching talent on the sidelines.
We ran a lot of the run/pass option play. By my count, K-State ran the run/pass option seven times against Michigan. The results were somewhat mixed. All three passes were completions, which you'd expect on that kind of play. Absent a drop, of course. The receptions went to three different receivers: Andre McDonald, Glenn Gronkowski and Tramaine Thompson, and averaged 20 yards. Of course, that was helped by Gronk's 46-yard reception in the second quarter.
Given an offseason to prepare for this new wrinkle in K-State's offense, I expect Big 12 defensive coordinators, to say nothing of Auburn's Ellis Johnson, to have something ready. But it's not as simple as "preparing for the run/pass option." K-State runs several variations of the play, and they were all on display against Michigan. You saw the fullback version above. Here's the completion to McDonald:
K-State also threw the ball wide to Thompson, basically a wide-receiver screen with a quarterback run option. I wouldn't be surprised to see another wrinkle or two next season. Perhaps showing the forward step with the tight end sneaking out before pulling up and looking for Lockett downfield?
K-State locked down Michigan's run game. Michigan ran the ball only 13 times for 69 yards. That's 5.3 yards per carry, which is at least respectable. Now consider that 40 of those 70 yards came on a quarterback draw after the game was out of reach. Also note that the second-longest gain of the night (14 yards) was on a double reverse to Devin Funchess. K-State did a particularly good job of defending Michigan's zone read:
I can't see the number of K-State's defensive end to the top of the picture here, but he executes his job as a run-force defender well. He steps upfield to force Shane Morris to hand off the ball, forcing the play into K-State's waiting defenders in the middle of the field, who stop the play for a one-yard gain.
Marquel Bryant does an excellent job of playing the zone read here. Not only does he hold his ground to force Morris to keep the ball, which is a better option for K-State, but he gets back inside and makes the tackle, too.
Michigan threw a lot at K-State early. Before the game, I watched the first half of Michigan's game against Ohio State. In that game, the Wolverines threw a lot at the Buckeyes, running screens and reverses and taking advantage of Ohio State's overpursuit and lack of discipline. I texted Panjandrum before the game that I was concerned about our defense getting out of position against these types of plays.
As an aside here, you should read Chris Brown's excellent book, The Essential Smart Football. In it, he describes these types of plays as "constraint plays." They're plays you run when you think you can take advantage of an overly aggressive or undisciplined defense, or when you catch a defender out of position if he's cheating against certain looks.
These are changeups. They're not staples. You can't make a living off of them. I was concerned that Michigan could hit for a big play, especially with Funchess or Jeremy Gallon. And Michigan did manage to move the ball down the field effectively on its first two drives. But the Wolverines stalled in the red zone, unable to run the ball at all and relying on a true freshman with effectively zero experience on the season.
To get an idea of how much Michigan relied on such plays, six of its first 20 pass plays were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Another five were thrown less than five yards downfield. They ran a double reverse, then they ran a fake double reverse. It didn't work well.
Both K-State quarterbacks played well. Daniel Sams' effectiveness didn't show up very well, mostly because of holding penalties and Lockett's drop. But Sams ran the ball seven times for 30 yards, and 4.3 yards per carry isn't the end of the world when you're a red-zone specialist.
Also, while some have criticized Sams for keeping the ball too often in the zone read this year, I thought it only fair to point out that he absolutely made the correct read on this play.
Notice Michigan's defensive end to the bottom of the screen. His pads are parallel to the line of scrimmage, and would've been in position to make a play on Sams if he had kept the ball. So Sams hands to Hubert, who gains six yards.
Waters had an excellent game, going 21-27-0 for 260 net yards (sack adjusted) and three touchdowns. That's 9.0 yards per attempt, or right around his season average. Throw in 10 carries for 53 yards (again, sack adjusted), and we'll take that 5.3 yards per rush every time. For every play on which Waters attempted to run or throw, K-State averaged 8.0 yards. Not bad.
Conclusion: Though we all tend to put too much stock in bowl games, it's always fun to watch your team play well. And K-State played well and took apart a talented but directionless Michigan team. If K-State can find a few linebackers, defensive backs, and a running back, next year could be pretty exciting.
In the Big 12, Bryce Petty returns for Baylor. Trevor Knight and Oklahoma looked excellent against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma State has built a program that should contend each year. Texas has enough talent to get right back into contention with the right coaches. Texas Tech was solid when healthy and hammered a good Arizona State team to end the year. TCU has a new offensive coordinator and a defense that isn't going anywhere.
But K-State has every reason to have a lot of optimism going into next season. Assuming ordinary development for the returning players and finding replacement-level options, the Wildcats could very well be in contention for a Big 12 title when November rolls around next year.
Thanks as always to BOTC's Derek Smith for the GIFs.