The five-game skid Kansas State carries into the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is disconcerting.
Ever since the Wildcats began an 11-year string of consecutive postseason appearances, beginning with the 1993 Copper Bowl, the precursor to the game they will play this year in Tempe, Ariz., their fan base has traveled in droves.
With each defeat, pressure builds and is something Kansas State (7-5) must deal with when it meets Michigan (7-5) in a battle of unranked teams on Dec. 28.
"Certainly for the fan base, it is important to them, and they like that," said veteran coach Bill Snyder, who has directed Kansas State to all but two of its 17 bowl appearances.
"For so many, it is vacation time. I think it is meaningful in that respect. As it relates to the rest of college football itself, it is better than not having any other opportunity, for sure."
Snyder will treat the game like any other, in terms of preparation and importance.
Kansas State players, however, do not want the ongoing bowl skid to tarnish their coach's legacy.
Defensive end Ryan Mueller can recall that thought crossing his mind following recent defeats in the Cotton and Fiesta bowls, when about 40,000 fans followed the Wildcats.
"I really started to think, 'Wow, this coach has been coaching for so long and his bowl record doesn't speak for how great of a coach and mentor he really is,'" defensive end Ryan Mueller said.
"As a player, internally, I just felt like, 'Gosh, what can I do to get this coach wins in the bowl game and end the season on a real positive note.' It hasn't happened in many years."
For the Wildcats to enjoy a breakthrough, they must slow a Michigan attack that features quarterback Devin Gardner, who generated the second-most total offense of all Big Ten players.
His favorite target, wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, is coming off a nine-catch performance against Ohio State.
Michigan climbed as high as 11th in the rankings and started 5-0, but lost four of its last five games. Hardly the way Team 134 (a reference to the number of seasons the Wolverines have played football, and won an FBS-record 910 games) wanted to go out, particularly when an upset bid against Ohio State ended with a failed two-point conversion and a 42-41 defeat.
"Our team is focused on finishing the season right and sending our seniors out with a victory," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
To do so, the Wolverines must contain the breakaway threat posed by Kansas State junior Tyler Lockett, who doubles as an All-Big 12 receiver and returner. The Wolverines could have the man to do exactly that with cornerback Blake Countess, who led the Big Ten with six interceptions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--WR/KR Tyler Lockett was the Wildcats' most dangerous contributor when healthy. He ranked as the Big 12 leader in all-purpose yardage with a 151.4-yard average and was also one of the conference's top receivers despite missing the better part of two games. Although his speed helps with separation, Lockett also can beat defenders with a variety of strong moves, which also help him on kick returns.
--DE Ryan Mueller climbed among the nation's leaders in sacks before he started drawing more attention late in the season and his numbers tapered off. Mueller still led the Big 12 with 11 1/2 sacks and 18 1/2 tackles for losses. His constant motor was invaluable for an inexperienced Kansas State defense. Mueller is among a long list of in-state high school prospects who joined the program as walk-ons.
--QB Jake Waters of Kansas State rotated with backup Daniel Sams, sometimes on the same series, until late in the season, when Waters was used predominately in the last two games. A junior-college transfer, Waters showed nice touch, often hitting speedsters Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson in stride. Accuracy was an issue, however, as Waters threw nine interceptions against 15 touchdowns.
--Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is completing his fifth season as coach since coming out of a three-year retirement. The bowl bid is the Wildcats' fourth during that stretch. Snyder guided Kansas State to at least 10 wins each of the last two seasons, including the Big 12 championship in 2012. This year, he joined Tom Osborne (Nebraska) and Barry Switzer (Oklahoma) as the only coaches to win 100 league games in the Big Eight/Big 12.
--WR Jeremy Gallon became the 10th Michigan receiver to crack the 1,000-yard mark in a season, a feat that has been accomplished only 13 times in the history of the program. With nine catches for 175 yards in the season finale against Ohio State, Gallon recorded his eighth straight multiple-reception game. The fifth-year senior has a reception in 37 straight games.
--CB Blake Countess led the Big Ten with six Interceptions and helped the Wolverines record 16 on the season, nine more than last year. Michigan had three interceptions in a Nov. 23 victory over Iowa. That secondary will be tested vertically by Kansas State, although Countess figures to be the defender the Wolverines place on WR Tyler Lockett.
--QB Devin Gardner enjoyed a Herculean performance against Ohio State, completing 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards, with four touchdowns. In an Oct. 19 win over Indiana, Gardner set Michigan records with 584 yards of total offense and 503 passing yards. He should be able to test a Kansas State secondary that has struggled at times, and is completely susceptible if FS Ty Zimmerman is unavailable.
--Michigan coach Brady Hoke heads into the Buffalo Wild Wings off a controversial decision after trying to win the Ohio State game with a late two-point conversion that failed. Hoke took over in 2011 and stands 26-12 through three seasons. The Wolverines reached the Outback Bowl last season but lost to South Carolina. In his first season, Hoke led Michigan to the Sugar Bowl, where it claimed a BCS victory over Virginia Tech in overtime.
BOWL HISTORY: Kansas State is 6-10 in bowl games. The Wildcats have dropped five straight bowl games since a 2002 victory in the Holiday Bowl. Four of the games in the skid were with Bill Snyder as coach, including appearances each of the last three years in the Pinstripe, Cotton and Fiesta bowls. The three bowl games for Kansas State against Big Ten teams all resulted in losses, with the last coming against Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
Michigan is 20-22 in bowl games. The Wolverines made only one bowl appearance during the stormy three-year tenure of Rich Rodriguez. Hoke was hired and has split two bowl appearances, with a win in the Sugar Bowl and a loss in the Outback Bowl. The Wolverines first reached the postseason in 1902, going to the Rose Bowl. Kansas State's first bowl bid came 80 years later in the Independence Bowl. Michigan has played in only six December bowls.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Nobody on our team has won a bowl game, with the exception of the coaches. We need it. We want it really bad." -- Kansas State LB Jonathan Truman.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Against strong defenses, both the Kansas State line and RB John Hubert have struggled. Hubert got untracked for a career-high 220 yards in the season-ending victory over Kansas, the last-place finisher in the Big 12. Backup QB Daniel Sams is a rusher who can elude tacklers and get yards on his own. Michigan averaged only 130.8 yards rushing to rank 11th in the Big Ten in rushing. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint started all but one game, but averaged only 3.5 yards while getting 16.7 carries per game. QB Devin Gardner is a threat to bolt the pocket. Protection, as well as holes in the running game, is furnished by T Taylor Lewan, a fourth-year starter.
Scouting the passing game: A huge performance by QB Devin Gardner almost pushed Michigan past Ohio State in the last game of the regular season. He threw for 451 yards and four touchdowns, and finished the season as the second-leading passer in the Big Ten with a 246.7-yard average per game and completed 60.3 percent of his passes. WR Jeremy Gallon is the top threat among Michigan's receivers, ranking second in the Big Ten. QB Jake Waters played most of the last two games for Kansas State after splitting time previously with Daniel Sams. Waters is adept at throwing deep balls and has two receivers, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, who can burn defenders.
Scouting the run defense: Kansas State would be carrying a six-game winning streak going into the postseason had it been able to shut down Oklahoma's running game. As it was, the Sooners rushed for 300 yards and beat the Wildcats. Although the Wildcats are gritty, their defensive speed is suspect, as well as their strength up front. LBs Jonathan Truman and Blake Slaughter improved throughout the season. Michigan was solid against the rush, particularly after LB Jake Ryan returned from a long rehabilitation of a torn ACL at mid-season, yet led the Wolverines in tackles (88), tackles for losses (16), sacks (4 1/2) and forced fumbles (four).
Scouting the pass defense: Throwing on Michigan CB Blake Countess is a risky proposition, as he led the Big Ten with six interceptions. On the other side, CB Ramon Taylor had four interceptions. Together, they could pose problems for the Kansas State duo of Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. FS Ty Zimmerman was the undisputed leader of the Kansas State defense, but sustained a broken left tibia in a Nov. 16 victory over TCU and remains questionable. Without Zimmerman, the Wildcats are more susceptible to big plays, both in the passing and running games. DE Ryan Mueller is good at bringing pressure, ranking as the Big 12 leader with 11 1/2 sacks and 18 1/2 tackles for losses).
Scouting the special teams: Between them, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson have six career touchdowns between them as the Wildcats' primary kickoff and punt returners, respectively. K Jack Cantele booted a 41-yard field goal in the final seconds to secure the TCU win. For Michigan, K Brendan Gibbons has 45 career field goals, including a string of 16 that was snapped in the Sept. 14 win over Akron. The Wolverines have struggled in the return game, particularly with punts. They have only returned 17 punts for a 6.7-yard average.
Intangibles: The five-game skid in bowl games provides motivation for Kansas State, which qualified for the postseason after a 2-4 start. The Wildcats could also feel some pressure stemming from that skid, however, especially since they're on record wanting to win a bowl for their veteran coach, Bill Snyder. Michigan gave a total performance in its upset bid against Ohio State, but the loss could leave the Wolverines flat.
--FS Ty Zimmerman of Kansas State sustained a broken left tibia in the Nov. 16 win over TCU and missed the last two games of the regular season. Considered the Wildcats' top NFL prospect, Zimmerman could return for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
--K Jack Cantele of Kansas State has not played since booting the game-winning field goal against TCU, because of an undisclosed injury.
--G Keenan Taylor started the first 10 games for the Wildcats at right guard, but missed the last two games because of a knee injury sustained against TCU. His return is a possibility.
--LB James Ross of Michigan sustained an undisclosed injury in the Nov. 23 loss at Iowa and missed the Ohio State game. His status for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is unknown.
--RB Thomas Rawls of Michigan, a participant on special teams, was carted off the field after the opening kickoff at Iowa. His status is also unknown.
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