|WHAT||Michigan vs Kansas State|
|WHERE||Sun Devil Stadium
|WHEN||10:15 PM Eastern
December 28th, 2013
|THE LINE||Kansas State –5.5|
|WEATHER||Cloudy, 60 dropping to 50, no wind, no rain|
What if they played a bowl game in Arizona that kept moving and changing its name every other year? What if your team was in it? What if it was scheduled to end around 2 AM? I don't know, man. Let's find out.
Run Offense vs Kansas State
Remember Brennan Clay? He is good to have against Kansas State.
With Devin Gardner out, about which more later, this is where Michigan will have to make their hay. The bad news: Michigan's running game. The good news: Kansas State seems like a pretty bad rushing defense. Both of Football Outsiders' advanced stats think they're around 50th overall, which is not good in metrics that try to adjust for schedule strength. The Wildcat rush defense is particularly ugly at around 80th. Neither of these metrics know that NDSU went for 215 yards on 43 carries in the opener, either.
After that, things alternated between bad (177 yards on 40 carries for ULL) to real bad (227 on 47 for Texas) to actually okay (85 on 25 for Oklahoma State, albeit while Okie State was tearing KSU to shreds in the air) to a middling four game stretch before getting annihilated by Oklahoma (301 on 52). They did smother Kansas. Hooray.
Michigan is a rushing offense that could get smothered by anyone, but they have had two decent performances in their last three games and you'd hope that 18 bowl practices would help them figure some things out and get healthy; youth should improve faster than age, and Michigan's featuring almost entirely youth in its rushing core, which features two senior tackles and Fitzgerald Toussaint against, five freshmen (Smith, Green, Butt, Bosch, Kalis) and three sophomores (Glasgow, Kerridge, Williams). The figuring it out thing may be happening, at least to the tune of having something not heart-maulingly awful.
WAIT WHAT MITCH MCGARY WHAT
/rends flesh with hairshirt
Anyway. Kansas State's straight metrics are flattered by the prevalence of spread passing attacks in the Big 12; when they've come up against decent rushing offenses they've been hit hard. Michigan can make a case they've ratcheted themselves up to that level by nearing 200 yards. I have no idea if this is at all in the realm of possibility.
Key Matchup: Seriously, 2013, I hate you.
[Hit THE JUMP for just don't hit the jump]
Pass Offense vs Kansas State
wouldn't it be nice
Now it can be told after weeks of "turf toe" untruths: Devin Gardner broke his foot in the first half of the Ohio State game, which is exactly like that moment in the Big Lebowski where the nihilists set fire to the Dude's car except the car didn't proceed to put up 41 points in the Game. That the metaphorical equivalent of a flaming car that smells like hobo urine did that to the Ohio State defense is something for an offseason post haranguing people for haranguing Devin Gardner.
But that's another show. He is out. Enter Shane Morris.
This is what we know about Morris: nothing. He is a true freshman who saw scattered snaps in the opener against Central Michigan and then handed off on a single snap against Penn State when Gardner lost his helmet. As such, his recruiting profile stands as 95% of the available data, with the other 5% given over to fluff articles in which Morris is learning the offense and getting better and etc., etc., etc.
That recruiting profile, in sum: lefty with a huge arm and standard artillery-piece issues in which his first few attempts are liable to go anywhere before he settles down into a steady pounding. Interceptions? Yes please, can't live without 'em. Morris needs a lot of molding and insider chatter was pretty skeptical after his arrival on campus; that he is pressed into duty in this game is suboptimal, but at least it's game 13 and not, say, game 8, after which most bodies exposed to the amount of force Gardner's received would have spontaneously deflated on Wednesday. Morris has had the benefit of literally every practice Michigan's going to have so far this year, which will hopefully mitigate the freshman thing somewhat.
Morris goes up against a statistically decent K-State outfit that finished tied for third in the Big 12 in yards per attempt allowed at 6.5 a pop. They get senior safety Ty Zimmerman, a third team All-American to the AP, back from injury. So they've got that going for them.
Michigan's got a Kansas State's pass rush is almost 50% in the hands of one guy, defensive end Ryan Mueller and his 11.5 sacks. That's almost half of Kansas State's season total. If you had to ask me to distribute an opponent's sacks in a way best suited for Michigan to defend them, I'd give every single one to the defensive ends, especially 6'2", 245 pound guys like Mueller. Now, every team Michigan's played has amped up their blitzing because Michigan can't pick it up to save their lives, but bowl practices and all that will help Michigan. Also I'd rather have a team trying to do something out of their comfort zone, as that might open up other things Michigan can exploit.
Key matchup: Michigan versus blitz pickups. They're coming. They have to work it out at some point. Right?
Run Defense vs Kansas State
This is about 70% of Kansas State's offense outside of passing downs and will pose a stiff test to a Michigan team that's had its share of issues holding up this year. Some insight into the general K-State philosophy can be found on Trojan Football Analysis, which has a bunch of cutups of K-State's "Wildcat" package, featuring the 14(!) different plays they ran with tailback Daniel Thomas as their nominal QB. Several times in the clips the coach just calls Thomas the QB; this is pretty much their base offense with a wrinkle. K-State is a spread 'n' shred at heart.
At least Kansas State sports the platonic opposite of Carlos Hyde in 5'7" John Hubert, who does have some Mike Hart in him but isn't going to grind the soft middle of the Michigan line as effectively. Probably, anyway. Hubert has almost 1000 yards at 5.3 a pop this season, though. He's no pushover.
When Hubert isn't getting the ball, one of K-State's quarterbacks will likely be carrying it. If sophomore Daniel Sams (helpfully, K-State has a white guy and a black guy to help you identify; he's the black guy) is in, that's a huge run tell, as Sams only cracked ten attempts in one game this year, a 21-attempt game against Oklahoma State in which three of those were INTs. His usage got scaled back as the year went on until he was almost entirely relegated to the bench in K-State's final two games. This is a bowl, so wacky packages tend to come out. 50/50 K-State has something prepped for Sams in which it's mostly figuring out if Michigan can stop their mobile package on the ground.
Meanwhile, while nominal passing quarterback Jake Waters is your nominal passing quarterback, he cracked 100 attempts on the year. Most of those were attempted runs. While the QB jumbling makes it impossible to know exactly what Waters's real rushing stats are, the gap between him (2.6 YPC) and Sams (5.3) mostly a gap in their respective threat levels. If Michigan is able to shut down Waters because his legs aren't threatening enough, expect Sams to see what he can do.
On Michigan's side of the ball, they'd been pretty good all year save late collapses in certain games when they finally gave up the ghost after the offense's parade of three-and-outs sapped their will to live. Then they met up with Ohio State, which proceeded to zip down the field as if Michigan was not there. They did this by crushing Michigan's defensive tackles, who were
- a redshirt freshman
- a 285 pound quasi-DE
- a guy who must be injured for how little playing time he got, and
- a redshirt junior who had barely seen the field
Meanwhile Michigan was also missing James Ross, who should be back for the bowl game. While the OSU game is foreboding, Michigan had good success against the other spread-to-run teams they'd faced (Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota) and K-State is something considerably short of OSU's flat-out elite rushing unit. Still, they're good enough to frustrate, if not dominate.
Key Matchup: Michigan DL holding up one on one.
Pass Defense vs Kansas State
This is a sideshow but one with towering lights and carnival barkers and rockets. Once K-State gets teams leaping up into the box with regularity, they proceed to annihilate them over the top. The weapon of choice is Tyler Lockett, a first-team All Big 12 player despite missing two of Kansas State's most important games. He is AB12 because annihilated Oklahoma for 278 yards, a school record, and Texas for 237. If he hadn't missed most of the Oklahoma State game and the Baylor game, there's a strong possibility K-State is playing somewhere on New Year's Day—K-State led both of those games after three quarters.
Lockett is like Jeremy Gallon described by Fred Jackson. He's bigger and more explosive and equally capable of making the over-the-top catch. Watching him, he just gets vertical on people all day, all the time. His quickness makes it extremely hard to press him, and he's got Gallon's "BUT YOU WERE JUST HERE" double move down pat. Hit 1:50 on the video to see Lockett spectacularly undress a TCU cornerback. He is a problem.
K-State's other starting WRs do get about as many targets combined as Lockett des; Curry Sexton is the short guy and Tramaine Thompson another deep threat. Tight ends and backs are virtual non-factors. K-State thinks throwing the ball for six yards is for suckers, because that's what runs are for.
Waters is the main architect of Lockett's towering stats. He's completing 59% of his passes for a shiny 9.3 YPA and 15 TDs. Interceptions are too high, though, with nine in just 233 attempts—about what Gardner did on a per pass basis. Sams chipped in four himself in just 52 attempts. K-State clearly chose to maximize Lockett's efficiency late in the year by de-emphasizing Sams.
The K-State offensive line gives up a lot of sacks per pass attempt—90th—but the nature of the offense has something to do with that. Wildcat quarterbacks often take a ton of time in the pocket after play action in an attempt to kill you deep; still, it seems like the best way to clamp down on the Wildcat passing attack is to harry the guy trying to throw the ball so that the yards of separation Lockett has on your top corner don't matter.
Michigan is not well poised to do this. They did finish they year about average in sack rate 70th, which was an improvement from what it looked like they were going to do early; 70th is still pretty bad. They should have their starting safeties back, but neither Wilson nor Gordon is the type of fellow who's going to be able to stay over the top of a Lockett in cover two, so expect a lot of cover three with one of the safeties providing an eighth guy in the box. Michigan will stick with their 4-3 against an offense like this, leaving Taylor and Countess the men on the spot. They've been pretty good this year.
Key Matchup: Cornerbacks versus Lockett. They can win this enough, maybe. Shutting Lockett down isn't likely; containing him to 12 yard outs is probably the best we can hope for, but that's not the worst thing.
K-State kicker Jack Cantele has been highly reliable inside 45 this year. He's 11/13 on the year with one miss from 50+; his long is 44. Thompson is their primary returner and has been highly effective on punts, bringing 9 back an average of 20 yards without a touchdown. FEI has that top ten. Their kick return game is also solid; they are poor at covering kicks. Not that Michigan has much to test that with.
Michigan will be missing Brendan Gibbons with a "family issue," so Matt Wile will kick, punt, and kick off. He's been pretty good so far in his career at all three save a brief period earlier this year featuring a lot of shanks.
Key Matchup: AHHHH YOU TACKLE TREMAINE THOMPSON
I was looking for a picture of an old cat, but instead I found this.
So I'm going with this. For J Leman.
- Shane Morris, pursued by most of the K-State football program, sensibly throws the ball out of bounds. This avoids an interception but ends up being thrown so hard into the Michigan sideline that it crushes Gardner's femur. As Gardner falls to the ground, a reserve offensive lineman eating an ice cream cone drops it on Gardner's head.
- A true freshman QB has his first start in the bowl game.
- You bought tickets to this game not knowing the previous bullet.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Morris is in fact the second coming of Brady that everyone on Twitter knew he was when Gardner was horking up his lungs against any decent defense or Nebraska.
- Michigan's running game works, which would be three out of four. Not because they'll win, necessarily. Just that can be interpreted as a sign of life.
- There are no more Michigan sporting events in this calendar year.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Starting QB Out, +1 for K-State Is Secretly A Good Team With A Bad Record, +1 for Michigan Not So Much, –1 for Bowls Are Wacky, +1 for Oh Man Tyler Lockett Is Something, –1 for But They Did Give Up Buckets Of Points)
Desperate need to win level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for December 28th Bowl Game At 10:15 Named After A Place That Doesn't Have Plates; –1 for And Gardner's Out So, Like, Whatever, –1 for SERIOUSLY BUY SOME PLATES, +1 for I Like It When Michigan Wins, –1 for Oh God QB Controversy If They Do, +1 for Anything Happy Is Happy And Is Therefore Much Needed, +1 for 8-5 Does Sound Better Than 7-6 By An Unreasonable Amount.)
Loss will cause me to... sigh, raise a glass to 2013, check phonebook to see if Lacuna, Inc. exists yet.
Win will cause me to... eat a whole Christmas tree in joy!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I'm not seeing it with Morris in. Michigan found some stuff with Gardner in the OSU game but also escaped several crippling interceptions; Morris will bring the interceptions but not so much of the running for 20 critical yards just when Michigan needs it. As with every freshman quarterback from time immemorial, Michigan will run really basic things, telegraph run after run, and try to hide the fact that they're terrified of their QB.
They should be able to move the ball some against a defense that's not exactly the Steel Curtain, but in a game of keeping the ball on the ground and looking to get something big after the other team gets sucked up, that's advantage KSU.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Morris 13/25, 1 TD, 1 INT, 185 yards
- Tyler Lockett has one long touchdown but is otherwise rather quiet.
- Michigan has a functional-ish running game and goes into 2013 with some vague hope that might be a thing.
- Kansas State, 25-20