Michigan Wolverines: Colleges

The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some major changes that fans will see in the spring game in a month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

For the past three seasons the Wolverines were constantly in search of the elusive featured back, which never really materialized. But with a new offensive coordinator comes offensive change and one of the most notable might be getting rid of that featured back notion.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Green has a chance to lead a deep, but somewhat inexperienced running back group next season.
“You’d like to use multiple backs,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “You look at the pounding the running backs take these days and how physical the game is. One back carrying the load all the time makes it awful difficult to stay healthy and sustain success over a season where I think you can accomplish the same things as an offense and get more guys touches.”

In Nussmeier’s two seasons at Alabama his offense featured two main rushers in both seasons, none of whom were quarterbacks. In 2013, T.J. Yeldon led the Crimson Tide rushers with 1,235 yards (6 yards per carry) while Kenyan Drake added 694 rushing yards (7.5 yards per carry). The previous season Alabama had two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards, 6.5 yards per carry) and Yeldon (1,108 yards, 6.3 yards per carry).

Though those numbers are impressive, and Nussmeier has proved it can be done, that doesn’t mean it will be done at Michigan, especially not next season. But the shift in ideologies isn’t a bad idea considering how poorly the primary back plan has gone the past few seasons. In fact, with each year at Michigan, the “featured back” position did worse and worse.

In Year 1 of the Brady Hoke era, that concept remained a bit hazy, as the team’s leading rusher was also its leading passer, Denard Robinson. The coaches spoke of the featured back but most times it was Robinson taking off down the field rather than handing it off. The team’s second-leading rusher was then-sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who through 12 games averaged 87 yards per game (just four yards less than Robinson).

During the 2012-13 season, again, Robinson was the leading rusher. But this time it wasn’t just a few yards difference between his and Toussaint’s numbers. Robinson averaged 115 yards per game while Toussaint averaged less than half of that at just 51 yards per game.

This past season, in Year 3 of Hoke’s tenure, it seemed as though the Wolverines might finally have found that elusive featured back that Al Borges always wanted. With Devin Gardner in the pocket, a dual-threat QB but not in the way Robinson was, there was room was the Wolverines to really work a running back into its game plan. And, in some senses, there finally was a featured back. The team’s leading rusher was, for the first time in the Hoke era, a running back. But the problem was that Toussaint averaged just 54 yards per game -- a far cry from what would be expected from a power-running team. During those three seasons Toussaint’s average per rush dropped by more than two yards per carry (5.6 in 2011, 4.0 in 2012, 3.5 in 2013).

In most instances when a three-year starter left there would be panic. However, with the running backs and the shift into an offense that uses more than one back, there actually seems to be a lot of depth at the position, though not necessarily much experience.

“When you look at the group as a whole, I don’t think we’ve established a runner,” Nussmeier said. “There’s a group of running backs and that’ll be an interesting competition to watch develop. I think those guys have worked extremely hard, they’re learning the system.”

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who both had experience last season, will be in the thick of the competition for quality running back snaps. Hoke also said that he was impressed with Justice Hayes near the end of last season and the recovery of Drake Johnson, as well. And to build even more depth, they’ve moved some guys around -- Ross Douglas, who early enrolled as a defensive back last year, will be taking RB snaps this season as will Wyatt Shallman, a fullback.

“I think I feel more comfortable about the depth we have there,” Hoke said.

Depth is one thing, and it will certainly create competition, but the question of whether this shift in how the Michigan offense uses running backs will be effective remains to be seen. It will be a big change when Michigan takes the field in the spring game and next fall, but it could be one that could finally show off the running back talent the Wolverines have in their arsenal.
The excitement of Hollywood’s biggest night isn’t completely over yet. There’s no reason not to carry over Oscar fun and relate it, somehow, to the Wolverines.

So, here are our best guesses for the 2015 Michigan football Oscars, a look ahead to what could be the best performances and must-sees of the 2014-15 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDevin Gardner passed for eight TDs and zero interceptions in his final four games last season.
Best picture: This was about as obvious a pick as "Titanic" in 1998. Leo stole our hearts and there just might be a game next year that could do the same. The best picture of the Michigan football season will be the Michigan-Ohio State game. If Nov. 29 isn’t already circled, do so now. It’ll be the must-see of the year. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller returns, but he has lost his running counterpart Carlos Hyde. However, the good thing about this game happening at the end of every season is so each team has enough time to come into its own and develop the talent. Both the Wolverine and Buckeye rosters have a lot of talent that could grow into its own and when these teams take the field expect plenty of nominee-worthy performances.

Best actor in a leading role (offense): Devin Gardner. The QB job is his to lose and as long as nothing goes wrong this spring and he takes his spot, there’s little to no reason why he shouldn’t be the offensive MVP next year. Yes, he was inconsistent last season, but it was a trend of the team, not just him. If he can bottle his performances from the last four games and turn that into a full season, he could have a really fantastic year ahead of him and the Wolverines could, too.

Best actor in a supporting role (offense): The offensive line. It’s kind of a cheat to give this to a group, but with an offensive line at its best, it moves as one. So we’ll go with that. This past season proved that it’s much harder (or nearly impossible) for any quarterback, running back, wide receiver or tight end to be productive, if the offensive line isn’t effective first. If Gardner has a big season, part of it will be because of what he did in the offseason, but a big part of it will be because the offensive line gave him time and kept him protected. Plus, the offensive line has quite a few interesting and creative guys, so if someone were to craft a speech to rival Jared Leto’s, it’d be someone on the O-line.

Best actor in a leading role (defense): Jake Ryan. He never really seemed to hit his stride last season after returning from his ACL tear. But now in his final year for the Wolverines, expect him to have his best season yet. He has moved inside to the middle linebacker spot so he’ll be reading the opposing running backs instead of tight ends, and Greg Mattison said this will give him a chance to get into more plays. With how instinctual Ryan is and how he has displayed that in the past, putting him a position to get to the ball more seems like a fantastic idea and one that could make him one the Wolverines’ leading men.

Best actor in a supporting role (defense): Frank Clark. Don’t get me wrong, Clark also could have a huge season but in order for Ryan to really play up to his potential, the defensive line will need to get some consistent pressure. Like the offensive line it’ll need to work as a unit, but looking at the Wolverine defensive line, Clark is a name that jumps out as one that could wreak havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The more he can do that, the more double teams he’ll draw and the more space he’ll be able to free up for Ryan to make big plays.

Best costume design: It’s quite doubtful Michigan will ever have a period piece-inspired uniform, though the nice thing about those period pieces is that the color “highlighter yellow” didn’t seem to exist. So, I can’t say I’d totally be opposed to that. However, uniform changes probably will be pretty subtle next season but don’t be too surprised if Michigan pulls something out for the MSU or OSU game. The best bet would be Notre Dame, however, as it is the final matchup. Michigan can’t do fireworks and Queen Bey at an away game, but it can do something big with its uniform.

Best original score: A score is essentially the same thing as a game plan, right? So, let’s go with Michigan’s offensive attack against Michigan State. Last season the Wolverines allowed seven sacks to the Spartans and finished the day with minus-48 rushing yards. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is back so fans can expect that even though the Spartans lost plenty of talent, that MSU will be more than prepared for the Wolverines. But new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should have some tricks up his sleeve. The Wolverines will have seven games before they face the Spartans so Nussmeier should have a good idea of what Michigan does well and what it doesn’t do as well, so expect his game plans to bring you tears just like the way "Up" did.

Best original screenplay: We can’t leave the marching band out on this one. The Michigan Marching Band will somehow need to find a way to best last season’s Beyonce performance. However, the best guess for when this show-stopping performance happens would be the Appalachian State game. For starters, it’s the App State game and with so many terrible memories for Michigan fans from the last version, an impressive halftime show could add even more to a dominant win. Also, with games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State away from Ann Arbor, the options for blowout shows are kind of limited. Expect the Michigan Marching Band to run the world and make App State fans realize the marching band is the best thing they never had.
Spring ball starts on Feb. 25, and until then we’re going to be taking looks at different players, position groups and parts of the team to keep an eye on as the Wolverines wind through their month of spring practices. We continue today with No. 2

No. 2: LT Ben Braden
Height: 6-foot-6
Weight: 318 pounds
2013 statistics: appeared in two games as a reserve offensive lineman

The offensive line is the position group that will need to make the biggest jump during this spring season, but the left tackle position -- which had been occupied by Taylor Lewan for four seasons -- is now open.

The Wolverines struggled this season by having youth on the interior and veterans at the tackles, however, next season the exact opposite will be true. The interior offensive linemen will presumably be the most experienced of the line, while the tackle spots will likely be occupied by redshirt freshmen with limited experience.

Going into the spring, Braden is expected to compete at the left tackle spot, looking to fill Lewan’s shoes. His biggest competition was expected to be fellow redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson, but Magnuson will miss spring football due to a shoulder surgery he underwent this winter.

Braden can use this spring season to establish himself as the top left tackle so that when the fall rolls around, he’s still running with the first group. He’s a bit smaller than Lewan (Lewan played his senior season at 6-foot-8, 315 pounds) but can use his athleticism on the outside to keep his QB safe.

The offensive line’s improvement will be of paramount concern this spring as Doug Nussmeier works to mesh his offense with the arsenal of players in Ann Arbor. As displayed by the Wolverines this season, no offense can get going unless the offensive line is being effective. And for the first time in four years, the Wolverines will be questioning who will effective for them at left tackle.

The countdown:

Mailbag: ACLs, 2014 season, V-Day

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
11:00
AM ET
Happy Valentine’s Day! Hope you have one. And if not, I hope you have chocolate.

Keiran, Ann Arbor: What’s up with the ACL issues on this team? Should it be something to worry about?

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTight end Jake Butt is the latest Wolverine to suffer an ACL tear.
A: Anytime a given injury crops up over and over again, it’s something to take notice of. Obviously the coaches aren’t going out there and taking two-by-fours to their best players’ ACLs and weird cuts/hits happen. But to have nine ACL tears in three years is pretty incredible. I spoke with another college strength and conditioning coach on Thursday and he said that during his career, ACL tears really only happened at new stops during the first three to five months of his training. During the first three to five months that’s when the body is getting used to the new regimen and if there’s a muscle or ligament or part of the body that has been underworked, that’s when it’ll be injured. The majority of the ACL tears the Wolverines have had weren’t in that three- to five-month window. On top of that, I know that Brady Hoke and his staff pride themselves on having physical practices, but five of the nine ACL tears happened during practice or conditioning. I’m not sure how you fix that or avoid it, but I do know that this should be addressed. Albert Einstein said insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The injury has hit different position groups at different times in different situations. If the coaches have a way that they train and strengthen the ACL, now is the time to reexamine.

Alex, Holland, Michigan: Outside of Ohio State and Michigan State, what’s the big game we should have circled for next season?

A: Well, the obvious one would be Notre Dame. It’s the final scheduled matchup between the rivals. Michigan might have the more talented roster, but it’s on the road early in the season, so that’ll be a good one for sure. But that kind of seems like the obvious choice, so I’ll also say the ones that I’ll be watching a bit differently will be Appalachian State and Penn State. App State, because, well, that was my first game in Michigan Stadium as a student. I remember being at pregames and people playing the scene from The Longest Yard when Adam Sandler says, “In college we’d start every season against Appalachian State or some slack Division II team. Kick the living snot out of ‘em.” And then, we all know how that ended. And I’m interested in the PSU game because it’s not very often that we’re able to so clearly see the evolution of a player -- that, I believe will be evident in Christian Hackenberg. And James Franklin is going to put together one heck of a game plan. Don’t sleep on the Nittany Lions.

Andrew, Hoboken: What’s your best Valentine’s Day story?

A: I assume by best, you mean worst. So that'd be third grade. Anthony Tucker. Mrs. Pohlkamp’s class. Anthony, being the romantic 8-year-old he was, put a bunch of flowers in my desk at school. Unfortunately, I had a sinus infection and terrible allergies to pollen. The two combined made me not able to breathe and everything in my desk had to be cleaned because of the flower allergens. It was literally like that scene from Hitch when Will Smith needs the Benadryl because of the shellfish. #TrueLove
With the graduation of Jeremy Gallon alone, Michigan lost nearly 43 percent of its receiving yardage and 27 percent of its receptions. Add Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds’ contributions to those statistics and the Wolverines are looking to replace more than half of their receiving yardage from last season.

That’s no small feat and that means several reps and opportunities are open for younger guys to step up. Devin Funchess and Jake Butt return at tight end and will be targeted more as they gain chemistry with Devin Gardner and Shane Morris.

But as far as pure wide receivers go, the Wolverines are going to have to reach into the freshmen and sophomore classes next season as they look for production.

And wide receiver coach Jeff Hecklinski may not need to look any further than the 2014 class, which signed one receiver on Wednesday and had two early enroll in January.

Both Drake Harris and Freddy Canteen are on campus and will participate in spring practices. Maurice Ways, who signed his letter of intent on Wednesday, will enroll this fall.

Hecklinski said he sees a lot of athletic ability in all three wide receivers in the 2014 class. Specifically, Hecklinski pointed out Harris’ ball skills, which were helped by his basketball background. Harris had initially wanted to play both basketball and football in college, committing to Michigan State in June 2013 to do so. He later backed off that commitment, deciding to focus on football. Michigan believes it can use Harris as an X-receiver in a similar way that the Wolverines used Gallon this past season.

Canteen has a lot of speed in the open field and quickness off the ball. Because of his versatility, coaches believe they could use him at the Z-receiver, X-receiver or slot. And Ways, who comes in with a chip on his shoulder after being under-recruited, has a lot of size. At 6-foot-4, 193 pounds, Ways is the biggest WR in the 2014 class and because of his vertical-threat ability he’s projected as a Z-receiver.

It was the second consecutive class with three wide receiver signees. In the 2013 class the Wolverines signed Jaron Dukes, Da’Mario Jones and Csont’e York.

Jones played on special teams and York played in one game as a backup wide receiver, so they will both be sophomores during the 2014-15 season. Dukes redshirted and will still have four years of eligibility remaining.

“I think when you look at last year’s class and the three we added and you look at this year’s class and the three that we added, they’re different,” Hecklinski said. “You don’t want carbon copies of each other out there because then you get tied in to having just one guy.”

While those six will definitely be in the running for playing time, the two who seem to have the biggest jump will be Amara Darboh, who’s coming off a foot injury, and Jehu Chesson, who caught 15 passes this season for 221 yards and a touchdown.

Regardless, there are a lot of catches that are up for grabs and with two early enrollees in the 2014 class and one of the biggest wide receivers on the entire roster enrolling this fall, there’s a decent chance a true freshman receiver could hit the field.

“I think all three complement [one another],” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “And I know that all three of them, we were very excited to have.”

Lunchtime links

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
12:00
PM ET
T-19 hours until fax machines have a purpose again.

Lunchtime links

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
12:00
PM ET
Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time.
Al Borges was one of the coaches Brady Hoke brought with him when he made the move from San Diego State to Michigan. And many wondered how deep that relationship would carry Borges even when the offense wasn’t finding success.

Even a few weeks ago, Hoke had stood by the fact his staff would remain intact.

But on Wednesday, Michigan announced that Borges had been fired. And by Thursday, it was announced that Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be his replacement.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBrady Hoke made the decision to make a change at offensive coordinator.
With how loyal Hoke has been in several situations -- both to his staff and his senior players, many questioned what really happened behind the scenes.

According to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, it was a move initiated completely by Hoke.

“This is Brady,” Brandon said. “This is Brady being a leader and knowing that the program comes first and sometimes you have to make changes in the best interest of the program. That’s what has happened.”

Brandon replied that it was “nonsense” that he would’ve forced the hand of Hoke to remove Borges.

“I’m a big believer that leaders get to pick their teams,” Brandon said. “Brady makes all decisions as it relates to the people he wants to surround himself.”

However, Brandon was completely on board with the Nussmeier hire once Hoke showed that Nussmeier would not only be a candidate but an interested candidate.

Brandon said that there were several other candidates that Hoke considered however Nussmeier was “the No. 1, 2 and 3 candidate.”

“Sometimes you look at results and you look at performance and you look at accountability and you have to make changes,” Brandon said. “I respect the fact that Brady stepped up to that. This is an important change. … We needed change. We needed energy. We needed a new direction. We needed an offense that was building and gaining confidence.”

Brandon also squashed any speculation that Hoke is or will be on the hot seat, saying those kind of rumors are coming from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

“This has nothing to do with Brady keeping his job. It’s Brady’s job. Brady is the coach of the University of Michigan football team,” Brandon said. “Brady is making the changes that he thinks will allow us to not lose by two points but to figure out a way to win by two points. That’s what we have to do because we’re Michigan. I give him all the credit in the world.”
Michigan took a real hit with its wide receivers in the fall when it was announced that Amara Darboh would miss the season with injury. Through spring ball and everything that was said last summer, it appeared as though he would be a major contributor.

His absence provided opportunity for other receivers, but no one really stepped forward opposite the Wolverines' top target.

[+] EnlargeGallon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon's production will be sorely missed.
THE GOOD: Jeremy Gallon. The senior accounted for 1,373 receiving yards (43 percent of the team’s total) and nine touchdowns (also 43 percent of the team’s total). Even when it was obvious Devin Gardner was looking for his security blanket, even when opponents knew that the ball was likely going to end up going to Gallon, they couldn’t keep the ball out of his hands.

Hybrid TE Devin Funchess deserves a nod, too. Named the Big Ten's tight end of the year, Michigan moved him around its offense, frequently splitting him out. He was a huge part of the receiving game, and Gallon definitely owes some of his yardage to the fact teams were caught up with the 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore.

THE BAD: It always seemed as though Drew Dileo should’ve been involved more. He caught only 16 passes on the season, four less than he did last year. And after last season it felt like he had proved himself as a reliable and trustworthy receiver. But instead, his average dropped from 26 yards per game to 13.

Dileo was fifth on the team in receptions, which wouldn’t be too bad if second, third and/or fourth had been actual wide receivers. Funchess, Jake Butt and Fitzgerald Toussaint all played vital receiving roles for the team, but when we’re looking at it from a receiver standpoint when your best true receiver averaged 106 yards per game and the next guy averaged 13, there isn’t exactly a ton of depth in your arsenal.

Perhaps if Darboh had been able to play this season there would have been another legitimate threat out wide. Itjust never really felt like Jehu Chesson, Jeremy Jackson or Joe Reynolds was going to be a consistent contributor this season.

THE FUTURE: Funchess and Butt both return (but we’ll get to that more in the tight end section on Thursday). Expect the two top receivers next season to be Darboh, assuming he returns full force, and Chesson, who showed flashes this season. Da'Mario Jones, Csont'e York and Jaron Dukes are three freshmen who could really explode onto the scene next season. Their names were brought up during bowl practice and with time during the spring season to both get more into the playbook and the weight room, these three could be names we hear a bit next season.

And Drake Harris, who enrolled early, will have a chance to see the field if he impresses in spring season and fall camp. He’s 6-foot-4, 180 pounds with speed, quickness and a nose for the ball.

Previous posts:

Quarterbacks.

Running backs.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
12:00
PM ET
Seriously though, give the guy back his cat.
The running back position initially was a question of young blood versus a veteran this season.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan tailback Derrick Green had 83 carries for 270 yards and two TDs this season.
Fitzgerald Toussaint was returning from the type of injury that makes everyone want him to succeed again. But there was uncertainty on whether he'd return to his previous form. And when Derrick Green came in overweight and slower than anticipated, the coaches chose their loyalty to Toussaint.

It worked for awhile, but eventually changes had to be made. By the end of the season, it seemed as though Green had positioned himself as the No. 1 guy, but the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl threw all preconceived notions out the window.

THE GOOD: This, like the quarterback position, is so dependent on the offensive line. And like Devin Gardner, the running backs showed their best flashes late in the season when the O-line was finally starting to get its act together.

Against Ohio State, the Wolverines averaged 4.3 yards per rush, as Green had 12 carries for 47 yards, De’Veon Smith added 57 yards on seven carries, and Toussaint picked up five carries for 33 yards and one of the Wolverines’ two rushing touchdowns. On the season, the Buckeyes held opponents to just 3.3 yards per rush. So this game proved that when the O-line did work together, the running backs could exceed expectations (especially against a talented group).

THE BAD: Michigan accounted for more rushing yards than its opponents' season average in just six of 13 games. In fact, 49 percent of the Wolverines total rushing yards came from games featuring the four worst rushing defenses (Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern).

Michigan picked up 795 of its 1,634 yards in those four games, including 15 of its 27 rushing touchdowns. In comparison, against the four best rushing defenses the Wolverines played, Michigan averaged just 89 yards per game.

It’s not a problem when they're picking up major yardage against teams that don’t have strong rushing defenses, but when the discrepancy is that big (110 yards), there’s an issue. And when they did underachieve, it was noticeable.

Four times this season Michigan’s run game was so poor that it was held at least 65 yards below its opponents’ season average for rushing defense.

THE FUTURE: Green and Smith definitely have a future with Michigan. Both showed tons of potential, and they'll have the offseason to continue getting their bodies in better shape.

And with an offensive line that shouldn’t heavily feature any freshmen next season, Green and Smith can run behind a cohesive group.

And looking even further into the future, the Wolverines, who didn't pick up a 2014 RB commitment, got a verbal from Damien Harris, the nation's top RB in 2015.

Bowl game helmet stickers

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:00
AM ET
It wasn't quite the ending Michigan wanted. The Wolverines dropped to 7-6, and in Brady Hoke's third year at the helm of the Michigan football program, he matched the win total of Rich Rodriguez's third year in the same position. But even with the loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, there were a few Wolverines that earned helmet stickers for their performances.

QB Shane Morris. The freshman stepped into a pressure-packed situation and excelled. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards. No, he didn't throw for any touchdowns and yes, he recorded an interception, but considering the stage, Morris handled himself like a veteran. He showed poise in the pocket and distributed the ball well, with nine different players making at least one reception. He also broke out for a late 40-yard run, showing that while he might not quite have the athleticism of Devin Gardner, he does have an eye for the hole and can make something out of broken plays.

WR Jeremy Gallon. The senior capped his excellent career for the Wolverines with nine catches for 89 yards while also connecting with Justice Hayes on a sneaky two-point conversion. Gallon broke the single-season receiving record (1,342 yards) and became the all-time leader in consecutive games with receptions (39). He certainly did the No. 21 jersey justice this season and was a huge contributor to the success the Wolverines did have.

Manager Jon Falk. Don't call this a cop out, because the man truly deserves a helmet sticker (we're going lifetime achievement award here). He has worked for Michigan since 1974 as the equipment manager. From Bo Schembechler to Gary Moeller to Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, Falk has been on the Michigan sideline, and Kansas State was his final game for the Wolverines. He always has stories and can tell the most ridiculous tales about people like Tom Brady or Desmond Howard while also knowing the name of every walk-on and scrub who came through Michigan in the last four decades. He loves Michigan so much and teared up every time this season I asked him about his retirement. He's a class act, and Michigan is going to have a hard time replacing him. Michigan didn't get the win for "Big Jon" on Saturday, but he gets a helmet sticker anyway.
It was far from an exciting game. But the Wolverines' 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl showed a lot about this team. Here are three things we learned about Michigan in its loss.

1. The young guys are the bright spot for this team. Freshman quarterback Shane Morris stepped in for an injured Devin Gardner and exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. He finished the game 24-of-38 passing for 196 yards and rushed for a team-high 43 yards on four carries (one of those carries was a season-long 40 yarder for the Wolverines). On top of that, tight end Jake Butt finished out his surprising season with three catches for 33 yards. Freshman running back De'Veon Smith got the most carries of the day, though he produced only seven yards off four carries. The surprise was Derrick Green's lack of carries, but still he has a definite future at Michigan. It definitely wasn't the kind of outcome the Wolverines wanted, but the experience for these young players on a stage like this will be valuable in their futures. If they continue to grow, this offense could be quite good.

2. The chemistry between Gardner and Jeremy Gallon was key this year. Gallon accounted for 89 yards on nine catches. Gallon is certainly a talented receiver but this game showed how much of a difference the QB-WR chemistry factor makes for a talented wide receiver. Whether it was an awareness of where Gallon was on the field or knowing exactly how Gallon wanted the ball and at what speed, Gardner had an ability to find the senior. Morris was able to get Gallon the ball, but not at the same kind of level that Gardner generally did. The chemistry between Gallon and Gardner came from years of throwing to one another, so it's not a huge surprise that Gardner's absence affected Gallon. This wasn't Gallon's best game from a statistical perspective, but it does show how much of a difference those long hours in the summer and after practice really make.

3. The defense's performance against OSU wasn't an aberration. The defense that allowed 526 yards against Ohio State and gave up big play after big play made another appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Wolverines choked up 420 yards to the Wildcats. Kansas State tallied 11 plays of 10 or more yards, including four plays of 20 or more. And it was a pretty balanced attack in those big plays, showing that there were breakdowns all over the field. Of those 11 plays, six were passing and five were rushing. Michigan had a true freshman quarterback making his first start -- that was supposed to be the area where Michigan would struggle most. But the Michigan D stepped up and took that honor by giving the OSU game an encore.
Team 134 takes the field for the last time on Saturday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (ESPN, 10:15 p.m. ET). Even though it was a disappointing season for most, the Wolverines have the opportunity to go 1-0 against Kansas State and give their team a jump start for next season.

Here are five things to watch as Michigan takes the field one last time in 2013.

1. How will Shane Morris react? With Devin Gardner unavailable due to a left foot injury, the pressure and playmaking is on the true freshman. Morris has only appeared in four games and completed five passes this season, so he is far from tested. Kansas State defensive lineman Ryan Mueller was one of the best in the Big 12 and the Wildcats will likely send plenty of pressure after Morris in order to get him on his heels as early and often as possible. The start. The pressure. Kansas State. The stage. It’s a lot for any player, especially a true freshman who has yet to take a significant snap. It should be interesting to see his response.

2. Which offensive line shows up? Much of Morris’ productivity will be based off how the offensive line plays. So the question remains: Will it be the offensive line that played against Ohio State or the offensive line that played against Michigan State? Giving Morris time in the pocket is going to more important than ever and the O-line will need to play its best. If those five don’t play up to their potential, don’t expect too much production from Morris.

3. Can Michigan stop the Kansas State run game? This was where the Wolverines really struggled in the Ohio State game, allowing 393 rushing yards. Kansas State doesn’t quite have the combination of a Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, but it still has been quite effective. Senior running back John Hubert accounted for 968 rushing yards this season, but most importantly, when he got 15 or more carries this season, the Wildcats went 6-1. If he gets going, it’s a very good sign for Kansas State. KSU also employs a dual-quarterback system and sophomore Daniel Sams is the running quarterback in the combo. In seven games this season he rushed the ball 10 or more times. In those seven games he averaged 94 yards per game and Kansas State was 5-2.

4. Keeping KSU contained on first down. The Wildcats average 6.95 yards on first downs this season. That puts Kansas State in favorable situations on second and third downs, which allows coach Bill Snyder to be relatively creative in his play calling. It also gives them ample opportunity to rush the ball (see No. 3). On top of that, because of how they put themselves in good situations early in series, the Wildcats convert 48 percent of their third downs.

5. The chip on the shoulder vs. the little dog mentality. Kansas State has a ton of respect for the Wolverines. Several players have been quoted as saying they grew up as fans or at least consistently watching the Wolverines and that they feel like they are playing a giant in the college football world. But don’t mistake that respect for anything other than that. Kansas State is coming into this game with the goal to send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 7-6 record (its worst since Rich Rodriguez’s third season). The Wildcats are coming in with a ton of positive momentum, which is the exact opposite of where Michigan is. The Wolverines lost five of their last seven and come in with a chip on their shoulders. They’re trying to prove that they’re better than this game, in a lot of respects, and they’re attempting to do it without their starting QB. Those are two very different places to come from and it should create a very interesting feel in this matchup.
Buffalo Wild Wings takes great pride in its large assortment of wing sauces and seasonings. With the wide assortment of offerings it seemed to match up perfectly with the wide assortment of play we saw this season from the Michigan Wolverines.

So without further ado -- for those who are as loyal to their wings as they are their winged helmets -- we present: Michigan’s season, as told through the Buffalo Wild Wing sauces.

SALT & VINEGAR SEASONING
“With this seasoning it’s all in the name.”

What it means: Michigan’s preseason ranking
Let’s be serious. Did Michigan really deserve a No. 17 preseason ranking? The Wolverines were replacing 3/5 of its offensive line. The defensive line was unproven. The best defensive player wouldn’t be back until midway through the season. The running back was either a guy returning from a gruesome injury or a true freshman who had come in too heavy. That doesn’t sound like No. 17. But the winged helmets, the name, the tradition -- that’s what really got them the preseason ranking.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Derrick Green could have a bright future as the featured back in the Michigan run game.
SWEET BBQ
“Traditional BBQ sauce: Satisfyingly sweet.”

What it means: Derrick Green in the run game.
This didn’t happen until far too late in the season, but when it did, it was satisfyingly sweet. Green was the traditional BBQ sauce to Michigan’s wings. He was a throwback to the years when the Wolverines had a featured back who scared other defenses. But, this season was just the sample size. The Wolverines (and opposing defenses) are going to have to wait until next season and the following seasons to get the full taste.

LEMON PEPPER SEASONING
“Pucker up citrus seasoning with a pinch of pepper.”

What it means: The Michigan State game
Since I haven’t tried every sauce I reached out to a friend, who followed the season quite closely. He’s going to be a doctor, but I think he has a future in food and football critiquing. His response: “I came to test the sauces, but decided to try a rub instead. The MSU game felt a lot like a wing without sauce. Translation: not good. Was there a mix-up in the kitchen? Why did I order this? Who did this to me? This wasn't what I signed up for. … It also seems like a solid metaphor for what was rubbed into the open wounds of the MSU rivalry. After redeeming ourselves with a win last year, I had the pleasure of reading tweets of ‘-47’ and hearing my MSU friends’ smug insults for the rest of the season.”

HONEY BBQ
“A sweet, sassy flavor: Savor the flavor.”

What it means: The non-conference season.
Honey BBQ is the kind of sauce to get if you’re not really sure you want BBQ. It’s for someone who loves brown sugar more than spice. It’s a BBQ sauce for the faint of heart (and heat). It’s not the real thing, but it’s still good. It’s like the non-conference season. Yes, Michigan might have been 4-0 and that might have been something really tasty and people definitely got excited about it. But it’s not the real thing. Not even close.

SPICY GARLIC
“A tasty, spicy, garlicky good sauce.”

What it means: The Indiana game
From my friend: “Not exactly what I would call a vintage sauce, but one I enjoyed. Offensive records, and a solid win that gave reason to believe we could score against the vaunted MSU defense. But it wasn’t that great. It could have been better. Don’t get me wrong, I love a spicy garlic sauce, but it always seems like it would be better on a different meat. Just like the Hoosiers, I’d rather see that one played out in a different sport … basketball.”

JAMMIN’ JALAPENO"
“Spicy jalapenos, blended with a touch of tequila and hint of lime. Sweet heat.”

What it means: The Penn State game.
Because what Michigan fan didn’t want a touch of tequila after that one?

DESERT HEAT" SEASONING
“Smokey, sweet and chili pepper seasoning.”

What it means: The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The smokey part: This isn’t the bowl game Michigan wanted.
The sweet part: This seems to be a far better destination than the Wolverines could have ended up at.
The chili pepper: The spicy questions going into this game: What will Shane Morris be like at QB? Will the O-line that played against Ohio State show up? Can the D-line create a consistent four-man rush? Will Jake Ryan crush someone’s dreams?

CARIBBEAN JERK
“Red peppers you love, island spices you crave: an exotic, delicious sauce.”

What it means: Michigan’s entire season
My friend’s response: “I always get it because it seems like a good idea and for the first five minutes, it is. But after a while my nose starts running and then I can’t feel my face. I wonder what I got myself into, and I don’t know why I put myself through it. But I keep eating. This is the season, for me. Through the Notre Dame game, it seemed like a good idea. My nose started running at PSU. By MSU, I couldn’t feel my face. But I kept eating. And I left feeling sick.”

HOT BBQ
“Rich BBQ sauce with a touch of heat.”

What it means: The linebackers.
This has been the Wolverines’ deepest group this season. They’ve really been the only group fans can look at and say, “Yes, that’s how Michigan should play.” Among Ryan, Cam Gordon, Desmond Morgan, James Ross III, Joe Bolden and even Ben Gedeon late in the season and Brennen Beyer earlier in the year, this group really played well. They were rich in the middle of the field, and they brought “a touch of heat” more often than not.

[+] EnlargeDevin Garnder
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner and the offense put forth a spicy effort against the Buckeyes.
HOT
“Classic wing sauce: Delicious flavor, exhilarating heat.”

What it means: The Ohio State game
What a delicious game that was. It was exhilarating to finally see the offense play near its potential, but not all of the game was good. People will talk about how good the game was, but eventually they’ll get heartburn when they remember that D.

MANGO HABANERO"
“Feel the burn, savor the heat: Two sensations, one sauce.”

What it means: Morris starting at QB.
The mango habanero sauce is one of those sauces that people always ask about, that they’re always intrigued to try. But you’ve got to commit. Do you really want that many wings in a sauce that could be terrible? Because if you commit to try it, you commit for the whole meal. Morris is this for Michigan. Who really knows what’s going to happen? And as much as people have wondered and asked about him through the season, now people will really get to sit down to a dinner of it. Maybe he’ll become your favorite. Or maybe you’ll wish you’d stuck with the classic sauce. Either way, here goes nothing. Put your bib on.

WILD
“Classic wing sauce: Big flavor, blisterin' heat.”

What it means: What every Michigan fan wants, every year.
People want the classic, smash-mouth football Michigan was known for under Bo Schembechler. It’s a wild, big-flavored offense with a defense that brings blisterin’ heat.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Harbaugh Torn Between NFL, Michigan Job
Adam Schefter discusses the report that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is said to be torn between taking the University of Michigan head-coaching job or the NFL.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12