The 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl pits two teams against each other who are going in opposite directions. The K-State Wildcats started their season 2-4, but finished strong in conference play to get to a bowl game. The Michigan Wolverines started off the season 5-0, but sputtered later in the season, losing five of their last seven games. Both teams enter the bowl game with 7-5 records.
Michigan’s formula for winning is simple: keep junior quarterback Devin Gardner unpressured in the backfield so he can toss the ball around all day. As with all things in sports, this sounds simple but is rarely executed. Michigan’s offensive line gave up 35 sacks this season. That’s more than any team K-State faced this year, except for Iowa State.
In Michigan’s best game, a 42-13 trouncing of Minnesota, the offensive line gave up just one sack. In their worst game against rival Michigan State, Gardner was sacked seven times. There is a direct correlation between the team’s overall performance and the pass protection. If Michigan wants to beat K-State, they will need to limit the pressure from players like Ryan Mueller.
Another key for Michigan is limiting the effectiveness of senior running back John Hubert. When Hubert gets going, K-State is nearly impossible to stop. Hubert’s rushing ability gives K-State a huge advantage in time of possession, and allows for more sustainable drives. But without Hubert running hard, the Wildcat’s offense relies solely on long passes to Tyler Lockett.
The more important thing for Michigan is to get their running game going. Every time senior running back Fitzgerald Toussiant has ran for over 50 yards this year, Michigan has won. Toussaint’s potential impact on this game cannot be over blown. If he has a great game, Michigan will likely win. If he does not, the Wolverines will be forced to be one-dimensional and they will struggle.
K-State’s first priority against Michigan needs to be winning the turnover battle. This season, when K-State wins, their turnover margin is plus-9. When they lose, the turnover margin is minus-9. If the Wildcats force turnovers and get points from them, they win. K-State has to protect the ball as well.
To protect from interceptions, they need to stay out of situations where they have a long way to go for a first down. Quarterback Jake Waters has thrown just one of his nine interceptions when K-State has less than six yards to go for a first down. This means that gaining just a couple yards on first down will help K-State immensely.
K-State also needs to put pressure on Devin Gardner. Gardner throws most of his interceptions when he’s under duress. Sacks can be drive killers, but nothing is bigger for a defense than forcing turnovers. The Wildcats can reap benefits from both of those if they can get their linemen in the backfield with Gardner.
Containing wide receiver Jeremy Gallon is also big for the Wildcats. Gallon leads Michigan in receiving with 1284 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He’s a huge part of their passing attack, and he is Gardner’s go-to-guy. He is very fast, and is always a threat for explosive plays. To stop him, K-State will have to give him a lot of different looks. Covering him in man-to-man could spell death for K-State’s secondary. The safeties must have Gallon as their main focus for the whole game, or he will beat K-State long down the field.
One interesting dynamic to this game is the discrepancy in penalties. Michigan is one of the least penalized teams in the country. You cannot consistently win games while shooting yourself in the foot, and the Wolverines have been very good about that. But the Wildcats still need work, committing eight penalties in their last game against KU. If you commit too many penalties, it will become a factor in the game.
Both teams have been wildly inconsistent this year. To win this game, one of these teams must come out and play as well as they have all year. Both teams have shown flashes of being very good and shown flashes of being miserable. Whoever comes out more motivated and executes better should walk away with a nice bowl victory.