25th Annual Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Preview

Friday, December 27, 2013

By Bruce Hooley

It makes sense that two 7-5 teams with higher aspirations than a middle-of-the-pack finish in their respective leagues would share plenty of similarities.
So when first sitting down to scout their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl™ clash, what played out on the screen must have looked awfully familiar to coaches from the University of Michigan and Kansas State University.
Both the Wolverines and Wildcats feature high-scoring offenses dogged by inconsistency when the running games failed to provide an adequate complement to each team’s big-play passing capabilities.
Both can strike quickly with an accomplished wide receiver — Jeremy Gallon for Michigan, Tyler Lockett for Kansas State.
Gallon’s 80 catches went for 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns, earning him the award as the Big Ten’s top receiver.
Lockett’s numbers are almost identical even though a hamstring injury severely limited him in two games. He caught 71 passes for 1,146 yards and eight touchdowns.
Michigan junior Devin Gardner, in his first full season as the starting quarterback after a four-year run by Denard Robinson, threw for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Kansas State also had a huge gap to fill at quarterback after losing 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist and Big 12 Conference offensive MVP Colin Klein to graduation.
The Wildcats went with a dual quarterback system, using Jake Waters’ passing talents in tandem with the running skills of Daniel Sams to throw for more than 2,600 yards and 19 scores.
Waters did most of that damage through the air, while Sams rushed for more yards (784) than he gained passing (452). Still, he completed 70 percent of his throws and nearly orchestrated an upset of 10-2, Cotton Bowl-bound Oklahoma State by passing for 181 yards and two scores and rushing for another 118 yards.
While there’s plenty of offensive firepower to captivate the crowd at Sun Devil Stadium, one of the more intriguing individual matchups will take place on the line of scrimmage between Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller.
Lewan’s return for his senior season gave Michigan a fulcrum up front on a line that was ever-changing in the middle. The Wolverines started five different center-guard combinations between Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield, who also started every game.
The lack of cohesion translated into a painful 35 sacks of Gardner, who ended the season in a walking boot, trying to recover from turf toe that ultimately reduced his participation in some pre-Buffalo Wild Wings 
Bowl™ practices.
Mueller’s eyes no doubt will light up over Michigan’s vulnerability up front given his 11.5 quarterback sacks. He leads a Kansas State defense that appears more accomplished than its Michigan counterpart yet still occasionally looked vulnerable against the elite competition in the Big 12.
The Wildcats were fourth in their conference in points allowed (23.7) and yards allowed (367.0) while holding up well enough against the pass to finish third (221.8).
Michigan languished farther down the list in the Big Ten Conference, allowing 367 yards per game to finish eighth in the league and 26.5 points per game which also ranked eighth.
The biggest difference between the teams is how their seasons began and ended. The Wolverines started fast, winning five straight, before losing five of their last seven games.
Kansas State struggled out of the gate, going 2-4, only to win four in a row and five of its final six. Only three previous teams in Big 12 history started 2-4 and rallied to gain a bowl bid.
“I think we’ve become a better football team,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “I think that’s probably the case with Michigan, as well. I just admire what they’ve meant to college football, the kind of program they have. It’s a very classy program. Those things I appreciate a great deal.”
At 73, Snyder is in his 22nd year and second tour as head coach of the Wildcats. He coached from 1989-2005, retired and sat out three years, then returned in 2009 when the program languished.
The decade before he first took over in Manhattan, Snyder served as the offensive coordinator at Iowa where he helped head coach Hayden Fry build a powerhouse that staged several epic meetings against legendary Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler.
“I had the greatest respect for Bo Schembechler,” Snyder said. “He was a building block for all the success Michigan has had. I had great admiration for him. It was always a very challenging time to compete against them. They were always a tremendous football team and always have been.”
Snyder is coaching the Wildcats in their fourth straight postseason game and the 17th in his career.
The first of those came in the 1993 Copper Bowl at the University of Arizona, the forerunner of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl™.
Kansas State had been to one bowl game in the program’s 77 previous years of existence, so Wildcats’ fans packed into Tucson for a 52-17 victory over Wyoming and the first bowl win in school history.
“The first one was such a memorable moment for Kansas State,” Snyder said. “It was a tremendous ball game. Our youngsters played well. The most significant thing was the fact that we took 22,000 people to the Copper Bowl. That was a period in time when you couldn’t get 22,000 people in the stands at (Kansas State) for ball games. That was really significant, just an exciting period of time for me and certainly for our players. It meant a great deal.” How much time has passed?
Consider that Kansas State used a 30-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter from freshman wide receiver Kevin Lockett to pull away from Wyoming.
Tyler Lockett, the Wildcats’ top receiving threat now, is Kevin’s son.
Twice this season, Tyler Lockett went over the 200-yard receiving mark in a single game, first with 13 catches for 237 yards against Texas, and later with 12 catches for 278 yards and touchdowns of 30, 48 and 90 yards against Oklahoma.
“The other team knows we want to get the ball to him because he’s our big-time playmaker, but he still continues to get open,” Waters said. “It amazes me how he does that.”
Incredibly, neither of Lockett’s headline-grabbing games this season trump Gallon’s best effort for the Wolverines.
He caught 14 passes for 369 yards and touchdowns of 21 and 50 yards in a 63-47 win over Indiana, and finished the regular season with nine catches for 175 yards in a 42-41 loss to Ohio State.
That close loss reinvigorated the Wolverines after a disappointing second half of the season in which they lost in overtime at Penn State, rushed for minus-69 yards combined in losses to Michigan State and Nebraska and blew a 21-7 halftime lead in a 24-21 loss to Iowa.
But against OSU, Michigan showed what it can be offensively when firing at peak efficiency with Gardner throwing for 451 yards and a rotation of three tailbacks powering the Wolverines to another 157 yards on the ground.
For Kansas State, its turnaround began before wins began showing on the scoreboard.
In a 33-29 loss to Oklahoma State, the Wildcats allowed the game’s final 10 points, including the go-ahead score with only 4:13 left.
That’s the day they committed getting Sams more snaps, and he did not disappoint, accounting for 299 yards total offense and three touchdowns.
The following week against Baylor — which finished 11-1, won the Big 12 and will play against UCF in the Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl — Sams rushed for 199 yards and three scores to give Kansas State the lead midway through the third quarter.
The Wildcats missed a pair of two-point conversions and a 41-yard field goal that could have tied the score with 6:49 left, falling to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big 12.
“It better matter to them,” Snyder said after that defeat. “It better matter to everybody if it involves the program. I hate to think that you lose four ball games through the early segments of your season and be a 2-4 football team and not have it matter. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It does matter to our players and they don’t want to be there. They want to do something about it.”
Kansas State certainly did thereafter, and now hopes to crown its season with a victory that would break a four-game bowl losing streak. Two of those defeats came in the Valley of the Sun, in the Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl last season and 2004.
Michigan has lost six of its last eight bowl appearances, but is hoping to win a postseason game for the second time in Hoke’s three seasons as a springboard to a more successful 2014.
“They’re a very good football team,” Hoke said of the Wildcats. “Bill Snyder is as good a coach as there is. He does a great job. They’ve won five of their last six and they’ve lost three games to Top 12 teams, so it will be a great test and a great challenge.”