Keys to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl game

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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The Michigan-Kansas State match up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl should be a good one. The Wildcats are coming in with a ton of momentum, having won five of their last six. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have a bit of a chip on their shoulders, having lost five of their last seven.

With these two teams coming from such different places, both with a lot to prove, the game should be very, very good. But the Wolverines will need to execute with consistency, which has been one of their biggest struggles all year. Here are three keys -- offensively and defensively -- that need to happen if Michigan wants to walk away with a win.

Offensive keys:

1. Give Devin Gardner time in the pocket. He has shown this season that he and the offense can be potent when he has enough time to allow to plays to develop. And when those plays haven't developed, he has the speed and athleticism to create by himself. With Gardner (possibly) being healthy enough, those two could provide enough of an offensive spark for Michigan to really get going.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPlaying in his first bowl game, freshman running back Derrick Green would benefit from early carries.
2. Find Derrick Green early carries. This will be a big moment for the freshman. He got to tote the ball a bit more near the end of the season, but this is his first bowl game and his first time playing on a bigger stage outside of the Big House. If the coaches can allow him to pound a few times in early series, he'll get a feel for the game, and he'll be able to make plays happen.

3. Allow both Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon to get involved as quickly as possible. Opponents struggled to guard both of these players this year. The tendency was to focus on one, and the other one would -- by no coincidence -- have a big game. Funchess getting catches only helps Gallon, and vice versa. And both getting catches make the Michigan offense reach its potential. If the Wolverines can strike first and get the Wildcats on their heels defensively, Michigan will be able to get some momentum going.

Defensive keys:

1. Stop the run. This was Michigan's biggest problem against Ohio State (and a lot of the year, too). However, when the Wolverines faced Northwestern earlier this season, they were able to handle Northwestern's two-QB attack pretty well. Michigan allowed only 143 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. However, that was Northwestern without Venric Mark, and Kansas State's John Hubert -- who has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards this season -- is probably closer to Mark's level than to Mark's backups, Mike Trumpy or Treyvon Green.

2. Communicate. This hurt Michigan at times this year, especially in road games. With everyone, presumably, back at full strength, this defense doesn't have the excuse to not go 100 percent on every single down ... unless there are communication errors and not everyone to knows which page they should be on. If each position group communicates internally and with each other, the Wolverines have a chance to make some big plays. But it only takes one guy being out of position or not knowing exactly where he should be for Kansas State to find leading receiver Tyler Lockett or for Hubert to make something happen. If Michigan can contain the number of big plays in that way, it'll be in a good position.

3. Give Jake Ryan the space to make something happen. We've been waiting for Ryan to have a real breakout game. He has looked solid but not quite where he was last season, and he hasn't had that highlight-reel game that seems more than possible with his athleticism, instincts and skill set. If Mattison can dial up some blitzes and allow Ryan to do what Ryan does best, this could be his best game of the season. And if Ryan can get the defense fired up, then keys No. 1 and No. 2 would seem less difficult.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter

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