TEMPE, Ariz. — For the Kansas State football team, earning a berth in a holiday bowl game is a reward that follows a turnaround season.
For Michigan, it’s an opportunity for redemption, after staggering through the final five weeks of the regular season.
Michigan (7-5) faces Kansas State (7-5) in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 10:15 p.m. on Saturday in Tempe, Ariz. On the surface, the Wolverines appear to limp into the bowl game, having lost four of their final five regular-season games. Also, they’ve been without the services of quarterback Devin Gardner (turf toe) through the first 10 days of practices for the bowl game and face the possibility of starting true freshman Shane Morris at quarterback.
There’s one common denominator for the Wildcats and the Wolverines: Both teams believe a postseason bowl win would catapult the program into the new year.
“I don’t recall going into a ballgame, or bowl game for that matter, that we didn't desperately want to win,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “I want to win, they want to win, everyone wants to win, and everybody works hard to do so. That is just what you do, and we are not different than any other team in the country.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Monday in Arizona that if the bowl game was to be played today, Morris would start on Saturday. Gardner has not practiced this month and was examined Friday, while Morris has been practicing with the starting offense.
“It’s kind of day to day,” Hoke said. “But right now if we were playing tonight, [Gardner] would not play. We’re going into it that Shane will be the guy.”
Michigan also announced that kicker Brendan Gibbons did not travel to Arizona because of “family reasons.”
After losing 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist and quarterback Collin Klein to graduation, Kansas State lost four of its first six games, including a 24-21 loss to FCS power North Dakota State in its season opener.
But the tables turned, and behind the quarterback tandem of Jake Waters and Daniel Sams, the Wildcats won five of their final six games, becoming bowl-eligible on Nov. 16 with a 33-31 win over TCU.
“Since we have so much time in between our last game and our bowl game, it is going to come down to who can carry over the fundamentals, tackle well, and do stuff like that,” Kansas State linebacker Jake Slaughter said. “I think with a team like [Michigan], or any team, you want to take away one thing — take away the run, making them throw the ball.”
UM struggled with its run game, accruing just 282 yards in its final five games. Kansas State, meanwhile, remained consistent offensively throughout the course of the season, averaging 401 yards a game, but shored itself up defensively, with 12 interceptions and 16 sacks in its final six games.
Kansas State now looks for carryover.
“It has been 11 years since we have won a bowl game,” Wildcats wide receiver Curry Sexton said. “Just to be able to end the season on a good note, to be able to send the seniors off with a win, head into the offseason with a win instead of heading into the offseason with a sour taste in your mouth. Any time you end with a loss, it puts everything that went well in a negative light. The one thing that you are going to remember is how the season ended up.”
Michigan shares a similar outlook for the final week of its season.
“This is your last one now,” Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “You can make any of the negatives or a lot of the negatives that you did have this last season kind of go away. And you can say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to build on.’ I’ve always believed very strongly that you’ve got to win that last one. You have to find a way, somehow, to play your best game in that last one.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.