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Friend vs Foe: Kansas State

December 26th, 2013 by Josh


For the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl edition of Friend vs Foe we would like to welcome Jon Morse of the Kansas State SB Nation blog Bring on the Cats. Jon was gracious enough to answer some questions about how K-State fans view the matchup, the two-headed monster at quarterback, what has held the Wildcats back late in big games this season, where he sees advantages, and more. You can follow Jon on Twitter at @jonfmorse and the blog’s main feed at @BringOnTheCats.

1. How do K-State fans view this bowl game and the matchup? Most Michigan fans are apathetic towards it because this season has been a disappointment, it’s not a New Year’s Day bowl game, and K-State isn’t exactly a “sexy” matchup (no offense). I mean, we barely sold half of our ticket allotment. What’s the view from your side?

From the perspective of moving up in the bowl selection order, they’re pretty pleased, and while a good segment of the fanbase wanted a shot at the Huskers, nobody’s really complaining about K-State getting their first-ever meeting with Michigan. Ticket sales haven’t been particularly great from the Wildcat side of the fence either, but if we’re all being honest… well, almost NOBODY is selling tickets at a brisk pace this bowl season outside of some outliers whose destinations are able to break through the ceiling for fairly obvious reasons. (Auburn, Florida State, Michigan State, Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma all seem to be doing fairly well, and it’s not hard to understand why each of those cases is bucking the trend.)

2. The majority of Michigan fans haven’t seen K-State play this season. Tell us about the offense, especially the two-headed monster at quarterback. What are their main strengths and weaknesses?

You’ll mostly be seeing Jake Waters at quarterback, and he’s the passer of the two. I’ll get back to him in a moment, because discussing Daniel Sams first lets me go back and explain how things work with Waters a little more easily. Sams is a tremendous athlete with a somewhat unorthodox running style. He can be very slippery and deceptive, and if he finds open space he’s going places.

The problem K-State has had is that when Sams is in the game, defenses are generally pretty capable of seeing what’s coming. Sams is not a terrible passer, but he’s not a GOOD one; he’s also had some turnover issues which haven’t corrected themselves (unlike with Waters). Worse, with Sams in the game the play-calling on running plays has been painfully transparent. Is Hubert on the field? If not and it’s a run, it’s almost certainly a Sams keeper.  If Hubert IS on the field, it’s almost always an option play, and Sams has shown little tendency to do anything other than keep the ball in that situation. These are not slams on Daniel Sams; it’s a scheme failure.

Jake Waters has thrown for 2,198 yards, 15 touchdowns, and nine interceptions this season (Ronald Martizez, Getty Images)

With Waters, Hubert becomes much more effective as a runner because defenses can’t key on the run. Further, Waters has major big-play capability in the air as long as his two deep threats are on the field. (In quite possibly the worst game of Waters’ season, both Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson were out with health issues.) Waters did have a major problem holding onto the football early in the year. That seems to have fixed itself. He’ll still fall into stretches where he’s not throwing the ball well at all, however, and that’s prevented him from making a solid claim to be THE quarterback as opposed to just being the starter.

3. Similarly, tell us about the defense. Statistically, it seems like a pretty solid unit against both the run and pass and allows about three fewer points per game than Michigan does. Michigan hasn’t been able to run the ball, but had a great gameplan and executed almost flawlessly against Ohio State. Do we have a chance to move the ball and put up some points? Why or why not?

The K-State defense is schizophrenic. Getting pass defense out of the way quickly, they’ve been good against the pass all year. Baylor had three huge pass plays, but that’s Baylor; outside of those three plays, Bryce Petty was kept in check for the most part. Nobody else had a particularly wonderful day throwing the ball.

The run defense, on the other hand, has been maddening. Early in the season, it was a strength, and they were especially effective against Baylor, absolutely shutting down Lache Seastrunk. More recently, they were embarrassed by Oklahoma and even gave up a ton of real estate on the ground against Kansas — but in both of those games, Ty Zimmerman was standing on the sideline with crutches. It’s not often that a safety is the key to a team’s run defense, but in this case it’s accurate. Luckily, Zimmerman should be on the field Saturday.

You’re also, I’m sure, aware of Ryan Mueller, who is an extremely disruptive force. However, it’s possible Michigan can move the ball if we see Mueller tied up with Taylor Lewan and the rest of the Michigan line can control the other three Wildcat linemen. They’re not a bad unit, but Zimmerman’s absence wasn’t the only factor in the rush defense’s problems the final two weeks of the season. Oklahoma and Kansas both basically decided they were facing Jadaveon Clowney or something; their line game plans both leaned on “neutralize Mueller” as a basic principle.

4. You guys have just two wins over teams that finished the season with winning records, but were in every game in the fourth quarter, leading Baylor at the beginning of the fourth, leading Oklahoma State midway through the fourth, and trailing Oklahoma by just three at the beginning of the fourth. What has held the Wildcats back in those big games?

Turnovers, baffling play-calling on offense, and critical defensive failures on the final drive in two of those games may well have been the difference between 7-5 and 10-2. North Dakota State and Oklahoma State were the two failures; with the lead, the defense just couldn’t stop either team from getting into the end zone. A lot of that was that the bend-don’t-break philosophy only works if you don’t bend all the way down to the 10-yard-line; both teams used quick, short plays to move the chains rapidly rather than trying to go for the big play. We have no idea what the coaching staff was thinking against Texas, either; that was just a mess in pretty much every possible aspect of the gameplan.

5. What specific matchups do you see K-State holding an advantage, and what specific matchups are you concerned about?

I’m concerned about Michigan’s multiple-personality disorder. I didn’t get to actually see them very much this year, but my impression is that as the season’s progressed the offense has gotten less muddled while the defense has gotten less effective. The Wolverine team that showed up the first 23 days of November, I wouldn’t be particularly worried about. K-State would be able to move the ball, and Michigan’s offense didn’t appear to be any threat. If K-State can make a team give the ball up on downs repeatedly, K-State is going to beat them. The team that showed up against the Buckeyes terrifies me, however. That Michigan offense would wreak havoc on this defense, and while the defense the Wolverines showed against Ohio State is certainly one the Wildcats can light up… well, K-State’s just not built to win games that way.

IF, however, Michigan’s defensive flaws are on display Saturday, then K-State’s passing offense against the Michigan secondary could be very much an advantage. K-State’s secondary should be an advantage against the Michigan receivers as well, although I’m no less concerned about Jeremy Gallon even as I say that. And if Devin Gardner can’t go, that’s going to be a huge advantage in and of itself.

6. What’s your prediction and how will it happen?

Before I really started getting into what Michigan was like, I was foolishly predicting a 14-point win. That’s not going to happen, even with Zimmerman playing and Gardner out. But I do think that combination is going to make it very hard for the Wolverines to truly outplay K-State. I’m looking at something in the neighborhood of 31-24 Wildcats now.

It seems like its been forever since Michigan took the field and was one play away from upsetting the #2-ranked Buckeyes, dashing their national championship hopes. The offense was clicking on all cylinders and the line played inspired ball, the defense left much to be desired but I’m sure Greg Mattison will have his boys ready for Kansas St.

Unfortunately, it looks like Devin Gardner won’t be playing due to his turf toe injury, or as some have suggested, even worse. For those that do not know, turf toe is in fact a serious injury. It has ended NFL careers and for a more recent example look west to Nebraska and Taylor Martinez’s senior year. So that leaves us with the heir apparent, Shane Morris. The highly touted lefty with an NFL-strength arm and prototype size. Since we don’t know what to expect from Morris I’ll just touch on what I’d like to see from the offense and then shift gears for defense and touch on what they need to do for Michigan to win.

On Offense:

I’d really like to see the offensive line improve upon the OSU game. Yes, improve. They played inspired ball and it was their best game of the year but Devin Gardner bailed them out a lot with his mobility and quick releases. Morris, while talented, is not quite the athlete Devin is so the line will need to hold their blocks a little while longer to give the true freshman time and added confidence.

Sticking with the line, I’d also like to see some more aggression. Nastiness is paramount when playing offensive line and if Michigan wants to establish the run they need to be nasty. Make no mistake about it, these are very talented kids but they haven’t quite reached the level of nastiness that is required of Michigan lineman.

Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon have proved themselves this year, though Funchess could due without all the drops, so there’s not much else I need to see from them. Just give us the same old and we’ll be fine. Get open, create some mismatches and give Shane Morris some extra help.

Jeremy Gallon has a chance to set Michigan's single-season receiving records but will have Shane Morris throwing to him (MGoBlue.com)

KSU has some solid pass rushers on the edge, but the interior of their d-line is nothing to write home about. If Michigan can get some solid push up front and Green and Smith can get to the linebackers then the run game should put extreme pressure on the Wildcats. Not that their LB’s aren’t good, because they are, it’s just that they are rather small and Derrick Green and Deveon Smith are rather large. This could be the game we finally see the downhill, power run game break out big time.

Al Borges has been much maligned and, fair or not, he is the o-coordinator and will continue to be so we need to just deal with it and move on. It’s not that he is a bad coordinator (see: Cade McNown at UCLA and Auburn in 2004) it just seems at times he refuses to adjust his play calling to the talent on the field. That all changed against OSU. He got some screens and quick throws to keep the Buckeyes off balance and it opened up the run game and Michigan went wild, compiling over 600 yards of total offense. Kansas State doesn’t have the athletes OSU does but they are a very solid team with a Hall of Fame coach. If Al can adjust his play calling to put Shane in the best position to succeed then, win or lose, I’ll be pleased. From all accounts Morris is a smart kid who has made some great strides over the season. A full month of practicing as the No.1 quarterback should be good for his confidence but again we really have no idea what to expect.

On Defense:

Kansas State runs a two-quarterback system, somewhat similar to Northwestern. With one being the passer and the other the runner. Their option offense worries me a little with Michigan’s “bend but don’t break” style of defense which has struggled against mobile QB’s/option attacks. Kansas State has a very balanced attack so Michigan will need to be mindful of both the run and the pass at any given moment. Daniel Sams is less likely to pass, but he is a capable passer. The opposite holds true for Jake Waters.

Jake Waters likes to hold onto the ball longer than need be at times so Michigan needs to not only generate pressure but be able to stay in coverage the entire time too. Especially on Tyler Lockett, KSU’s version of Jeremy Gallon. If the front seven can flush Waters and/or make him hold on to the ball they can force him into some bad throws.

This puts more pressure on the safeties, be they Jarrod Wilson, Thomas Gordon, Dymonte Thomas, etc., to make sure NO ONE gets behind them. Michigan’s safeties have given up far too many 50-yard touchdown passes because someone was out of position and the receiver got behind them, if they want to win they cannot allow Lockett to do this. No big plays would be nice but I think Lockett is far too good to not make at least one big play, maybe more.

Daniel Sams will be called upon the run game, though he will toss it up a few times as well. He does not present the same challenge someone like Braxton Miller does (pass and run) but he will be a rested player when he comes into the game. Michigan needs to keep him contained while still being mindful of the deep pass. If they can limit his running ability and force KSU into definite passing downs, giving them the upper hand in play calling, Michigan should be able to win.

Both running backs, John Hubert (5’7″) and Robert Rose (5’4″) are diminutive, but not quite Darren Sproles. They aren’t game breakers but both are very solid players. Hubert will take the bulk of the carries but is not all that great as a pass blocker. If Michigan can exploit this weakness when Waters is in the game they can gain another advantage, if they maintain their pass coverage while doing so.

On Special Teams:

Field position, field position, field position. Matt Wile has been solid all year so if he can just keep it up he’ll be fine. KSU is not the kind of team you want to give short fields, their balanced attack is all the more effective in short yardage situations. If Michigan can make them drive long fields it will limit their scoring opportunities. If this game comes down to a long field goal to win it we might be in trouble as Brendan Gibbons is out, but in a pinch Matt Wile is good enough. I won’t mention our diminutive KR because every time I do he doesn’t quite take one to the house, it’s not that I’m being superstitious though. OK, maybe a little.

Prediction:

If Devin Gardner was playing and at least 80 percent healthy, Michigan wins fairly easily. With Shane Morris, I’m not so sure. Not because I don’t like him but because we have basically nothing to base it off except optimistic speculation. If the o-line can create holes for Green, Smith and Fitz to run through, I like our chances. If the run game cannot get going I don’t think we stand much of a chance. If the defense can keep Lockett from beating them more than once deep then I think we’ll be fine. If, however, we allow big plays like we did against OSU, it’s not going to end well for Wolverine Nation.

I have faith in Shane Morris’ arm and decision-making ability, plus we get Jarrod Wilson back so I see no reason Michigan can’t walk away with the win. It’ll be a good one and close throughout but I think Michigan pulls away late.