I exchanged questions with Big House Jack of SB Nation's Michigan blog Maize n Brew in preparation for our December 28 showdown in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. We talked about all sorts of things, from getting upended by FCS teams to our individual impressions of one another's universities.
Jon: When we talked for your Q&A, you brought up the Appalachian State disaster in passing, but I'm going to get into it with you in detail, with apologies for opening old wounds. The reason I need to, though, is that the parallels between that game and K-State's loss to North Dakota State are sort of frightening. What went through your mind when K-State lost to the Bison?
Jack: I had been rooting for Kansas State to go to the national championship against Oregon in 2012, and I was all kinds of pissed off when both you and the Ducks blew your undefeated streaks and allowed Alabama and Notre Dame (two teams we lost to that year, by the way) to play for all the marbles. It was a lose-lose scenario for Michigan fans, and it was all because you dropped that game to Baylor on November 17. I'd have much rather seen two teams who hadn't ever won a national championship yet duke it out rather than it come down to Alabama-Notre Dame. One of those fan bases would be insufferable.
I was disappointed when I heard you guys lost to North Dakota State because frankly I thought Kansas State was better than that, but at the same time I've gone through that experience before so I know exactly how you guys felt. It's not the first time a BCS school lost to an FCS team, and it won't be the last. Colorado lost to one as well, I think. Sacramento State in 2012.
Jon: Do you think the two teams just weren't adequately prepared or focused for a game against opponents which, their obvious talent notwithstanding, were "mere" FCS teams? Or do you think it demonstrates that FCS teams aren't quite as disadvantaged as we perceive them to be?
Jack: In terms of us, I think Michigan took the game for granted. We were pre-season No. 5 with a slew of returning seniors who were all starters and we supposedly a real shot at the national championship. I do think that FCS schools are better than we give them credit for sometimes, though. Many of them are as good if not better than the lower conferences in Division-1A. The championship contenders of the FCS also have that winning mentality that says they can beat anybody. The jump from FCS to Division-1A is not like jumping from college to the NFL or from high school to college.
Jon: Following up on that, how long did it take to really get over that loss -- or does it still sting? Are we going to be condemned to years of ponderous regret?
Jack: It still stings. You have to understand that, before Rich Rodriguez, Michigan had been one of the premier programs in college football. We're one of the oldest and one of the most storied. After decades of success at a ridiculously high level, for us to lose such a game was unfathomable. The only thing worse was losing to Ohio State seven straight times.
For you guys, it's not the same. Everyone knows what K-State was like before Snyder showed up (the first time). Yes, Snyder has built K-State into something incredibly respectable, but it's not like the Wildcats were whipping Bama for 200 years before him. You also lost your game on a weekend where there were a lot of upsets. I think most of college football looked at the K-State loss to North Dakota State and went "Well, that's a shame" rather than "OMG ARE YOU SRS?!" the way everyone did when Michigan lost to Appalachian State. Besides, North Dakota State has beaten BCS conference teams before. Ask Minnesota.
The Appalachian State loss will stay with us forever, and I'm being completely serious. Unless Michigan falls into depths of the underworld and can't even manage to ever win a game in a season, that's going to be the low point in the memory of many Michigan fans. We also cringe at the memory of Appalachian State because of the context going into the game. Obviously, 2008 as a whole was worse, because we went 3-9 for the first time in program history. But for most Michigan fans, seeing a Michigan team lose to Appalachian State when we were predicted to make a run at the national championship was the first time they truly saw epic failure.
The only thing I can suggest in terms of rehab is to drink lots of cocoa and pet lots of puppies. Then when someone mentions North Dakota State all you'll be able to say is, "Who?? Have you seen these PUPPIES?"
Jon: So you're sitting at home on Sunday waiting for bowl announcements, and you hear Michigan's going to be playing Kansas State, which means you have to think about Kansas State. What sort of impression does the typical Michigan fan have of the Wildcats in general and as a program?
Jack: Well, we were actually rumored to be playing Georgia in the Gator Bowl first. I had a blog post written all about that selection which is now in the abyss of the SB nation editorial queue. So, honestly, when I heard we were playing K-State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, my first thought was, "Thank God we're not playing an SEC team at 7-5." I'd much rather see a competitive battle where two teams match up well rather than one where we get destroyed. (Obviously, that still might happen, but I can dream, can't I?)
I'm sure there are Michigan fans out there who don't think much of Kansas State and probably feel that this game is the equivalent of us playing a team from the MAC or the WAC. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Kansas State lost to an FCS team this year. Michigan fans would be wise to remember, however, that the Wolverines were close to dropping games against Akron and UConn this season themselves. This is a 7-5 team going up against another 7-5 team any way you cut it.
As for overall perception, the most I've heard from Michigan fans about Kansas State is the harping on Snyder's reliance on the JUCO system. Michigan rarely, if ever, pursues JUCO players, but we have had them in the past, so we're not as elitist about it as a team like Notre Dame is, who refuses to recruit JUCOs and is probably laughing their asses off at Snyder. Other than that, the rational side of the Michigan fan base probably views Kansas State as the equivalent to Baylor: a non-traditional power that is on the rise.
Personally, I love Bill Snyder. He's like Joe Paterno if Joe Paterno had integrity. I love that Snyder has stuck with the program and worked so hard to make it a national power, which it definitely was just a year ago. I love that he gives junior college athletes a chance to play Division-I football. I love that he and his family have given so much money to charity and so much of themselves to Kansas State. A coach like that defines a program. Bill Snyder is Kansas State.
Jon: Brady Hoke's had an interesting ascent, and on the way to Michigan he's taken two relatively moribund programs and kicked them onto the progress highway. What's he like as a coach, both personality and scheme mindset? Any particular tendencies? And was his decision to go for two against the Buckeyes a surprise?
Jack: I love everything about Brady Hoke and am confident that eventually he will get Michigan into the national title picture. He wasn't exactly a very well known candidate before he was hired and most Michigan fans actually didn't know what to make him and feared the worst. Many saw it as a return to days of 2007 Lloyd Carr: we'd be 9-3 at best, never beat Ohio State, and punt 30 yards from the opponent's endzone instead of going for it. Instead, Hoke has proven to be infinitely more aggressive than Lloyd Carr ever was. He plays to win.
Hoke personally likes the style of football that teams like Alabama, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Michigan State run. Tough, hard-nosed "MANBALL" that runs at you out of the I-formation. And on defense, be physical and aggressive, "get after it." Because we had Denard Robinson in 2011 and 2012 and were so effective with him, Hoke and his staff did a spread/pro-style hybrid that stuck with the stuff Denard and the offensive players were used to. Now, we're gradually moving more toward Hoke wants to be, but we've hit some snags. The biggest thing is that we underestimated the youth on the interior of the offensive line and how totally unprepared they'd be for college football.
As a coach, Hoke has shown to be a class act. He didn't go after any players from Penn State when the scandal broke, unlike some other Big Ten coaches. He has stuck to his word on everything that's been within his control. He holds himself, his staff, and his players accountable for everything that they do. He doesn't shy away from suspending a player who has done wrong even if it hurts us in an upcoming game. He has also made sure to recruit players who have strong character and represent the university well. He doesn't chew out players in public or embarrass them when they mess up. On that front I don't think anyone is upset with Hoke. Watch some of his press conferences and you'll get a feel for how he is, and pretty much what you see is what you get.
On the field, Hoke is one of the most aggressive coaches I have ever seen. He has not typically gone for two when there was the chance for overtime, but it was different against Ohio State because, well, it was Ohio State. It was not a surprise that he went for two in that game and nearly everyone I've spoken with about it applauds the move even though it failed. No guts, no glory. He's that type of coach. In my opinion any fan base would absolutely love to have this guy. He's a fantastic representative of the university.
Jon: Jeremy Gallon's pretty good, but -- and I ask this from the perspective of someone who didn't get to see a lot of Wolverine ball this season -- is his performance against Indiana inflating his reputation, or is he really a world-class weapon?
Jack: Jeremy Gallon is legitimately among the best wide receivers in Michigan's history, and I'll stand behind that statement as bold as it sounds. He is right up there with Braylon Edwards, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington. He's immensely capable of making huge plays all the time. With Devin Gardner's arm, Gallon can win most one on one match-ups.
So, I wouldn't say that the Indiana game has overblown his stats. However, what I will say is that probably the biggest reason why Gallon has been able to be so explosive is because of the emergence of "tight end" Devin Funchess, who has actually played wide receiver for most of this season. Because Funchess is so huge (6'5", I think; he's at least as tall as Detroit Lion Calvin Johnson) and so fast, most defenses key in on him. That leaves Gallon, who is frequently underestimated because of his size (he's 5'9" at best), able to get free. In my opinion, he could and probably would stand out on any of the offenses in the SEC. I don't feel any trepidation in saying that he is possibly one on the country's best receivers.
A lot of that also has to do with the fact that he is Devin Gardner's go-to guy. It makes it easier to rack up monster stats when the quarterback is always looking for you. That Gallon has been able to excel even after defenses are well aware of him being such a threat is really a testament to how good he really is. It sucks that we lose him after this game.
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Jon: The offensive line's been an obvious issue. What on earth happened to Taylor Lewan? Has he really regressed, or is that just perception?
Jack: It hasn't been so much Taylor Lewan as it has been the interior of the offensive line. On the edges, with Lewan and redshirt senior Michael Schofield, we are actually really good. Many Michigan fans feel that Lewan's "celebrity" has overshadowed Schofield, who is a first round offensive tackle in his own right. I imagine that despite Michigan's OL setbacks Lewan is still going to be a high draft pick, as he should be. I shudder to think of what Michigan's line would have looked like without him for the entire year. In terms of whether or not he's "regressed," I don't think so. He's let his emotions get the better of him in some games, but in general he's done superbly.
It's been in the middle that Michigan has really, really struggled. That's because we have three new starters and throughout the whole season we haven't gotten the right combination. On top of that we're dealing with walk-ons, redshirt freshmen, and true freshmen as our choices. These guys will probably (hopefully) be good next year, but this season the lack of experience from them has shown up in a big way. We've also been hit occasionally by the injury bug at that position, which threw players who weren't ready into the fire. In short, it's been as close to a disaster as we've seen under Hoke.
Jon: What can we expect to see from the Wolverine offense, and other than Gallon and Lewan and Devin Gardner is there anyone we really need to keep an eye on?
Jack: I already mentioned Devin Funchess, who is a match-up nightmare for anyone in coverage, but I'll also throw in Drew Dileo as well as someone to watch. Despite his whiteness, he's a clutch receiver and is one of the most reliable components of the offense, even though Gardner doesn't call his number too often. If I had to pick somebody K-State fans are familiar with, I'd say he's a bit like Texas A&M's Ryan Swope.
Also, I feel I should mention this: we have just recently learned that there's a chance that Gardner won't play in the bowl game, because he was in a boot and on crutches for the senior banquet. The general word from the program is turf toe. That will leave the offense in the hands of true freshman Shane Morris, who we know next to nothing about except that he's probably not ready to lead the offense.
Jon: The Michigan defense kept the team alive early in the season, but lately they've seemed to fall apart a bit. Is that injuries and just-plain-worn-out, or is there something else going on?
Jack: Our defense really only collapsed against Ohio State, where we just had no answer for anything that they threw at us. We hung in there defensively against Iowa and Nebraska, and even Michigan State up until the end, but with our offense not being able to stay on the field, it became very difficult for the defense when they got tired. We've suffered some injuries here and there, but overall our defense has been a positive point of the season.
Jon: How will the Wolverines be lining up defensively, and what sort of packages do they run? Any standouts to watch?
Jack: Greg Mattison is our defensive coordinator. He used to be the DC for the Baltimore Ravens and runs a 4-3 under. All season we've been trying to get back to the same defense as 2011 (hell, even 2012) and have really struggled to get much of a push from our defensive line. They are making steady progress, though.
Our linebacking crew is solid and our secondary is better than we thought. (Of course, Ohio State kind of unraveled all this.) Look out for Jake Ryan and James Ross III as your play-making linebackers. Ryan is all-conference and came back in seven months(!) after tearing his ACL in the spring. James Ross is essentially Boba Fett. (Translation: he has a great eye for the ball and zeroes in on where it's going and stops it.)
In the secondary, watch out for Blake Countess. He's quietly had an excellent season as a Michigan cornerback and leads the Big Ten in interceptions. Your best bet is to pick on the guy who is backing him up, true freshman Channing Stribling. That's how Indiana ripped us apart with short passes.
Jon: Finally, as is customary: got a prediction for us?
Jack: If Kansas State plays anything like Ohio State on offense, this is going to be a game. If Michigan plays like anything on offense other than how they played against Ohio State or Notre Dame, Kansas State is going to win. I don't think they'd win big, but they'd definitely win. I don't have much confidence that our offense can perform at a consistent level yet.
Here's the key for Snyder and the Wildcats: pressure Gardner up the middle. Send blitzes like crazy right at our weakest position, the interior of the OL, where two freshmen and one walk-on are desperately trying to hold their own and gain experience. There's nothing we or the staff can do; they're our only options at this point. We can't make experienced, All Big Ten senior linemen appear out of thin air, even if this is Michigan.
Pressure Gardner and it will put us into 2nd and 23, and then 3rd and 23. That's not where our offense (or any offense) likes to be. On top of that, our running game is suspect at best.
On offense, do what Ohio State did. Make us try to cover too much and take what we give you in big ways. The zone read that Kansas State runs seems aptly built for this, and Michigan hasn't really practiced defending the option since Denard Robinson was on the roster.
I'm going to go with my head here instead of my heart and say that Kansas State wins this one, 28-24.