TEMPE, Ariz. — The recipe for a successful first start for Michigan freshman quarterback Shane Morris didn’t call for him to play from behind early.
But the Wolverines trailed Kansas State in Saturday night’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl from the moment Morris stepped onto the Sun Devil Stadium for his first drive. And though Morris kept his composure despite the deficit, the Wildcats routed Michigan, 31-14, to give the Wolverines (7-6) their sixth loss in their final eight games.
From Kansas State’s (8-5) first drive, when it converted on all four of its third-down attempts en route to a touchdown, the Michigan defense couldn’t find a way to slow down Tyler Lockett — the top receiving threat in an otherwise lackluster aerial attack, as well as the Big 12’s Special Teams Player of the Year. The Wildcats finished 4-of-11 on third downs.
“Third downs were huge today,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who wrapped up his third season in Ann Arbor. “We gave up too many big plays. Kansas State just outplayed us.”
Lockett caught three touchdown passes in the first half alone, including a 29-yard strike from quarterback Jake Waters in the first quarter’s final minute that left redshirt sophomore defensive back Blake Countess in the dust. Waters torched the Wolverines’ secondary all night to the tune of 271 yards off 21-for-27 passing. Lockett, his favorite target, accumulated 116 yards on 10 receptions and sprung the Kansas State offense with his elusiveness on returns.
The Wolverines headed into the locker room trailing 21-6 with their only points coming off two field goals of under 30 yards by junior kicker Matt Wile, filling in for usual starter fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons.
Morris, starting in place of injured redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, had played sparingly since his junior year of high school because of a bout of mononucleosis that kept him sidelined for most of his senior season.
But with a laser arm, accurate more often than not, Morris completed 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards. He avoided any mind-boggling turnover that has too often plagued Gardner this season.
“I thought he did a good job,” Hoke said. “I think coming into this situation, I think he prepared well. I said that all week. The way he prepared, I thought he didn't look nervous, shaky, all those things. So I was real pleased with that.”
And while the major question mark entering the bowl game for most was how Morris would handle himself in his first start, it was actually the running backs who failed to keep up their end of the bargain.
After one of the ground game’s best performances of the season in the 42-41 loss to Ohio State in the regular season’s final week, a quartet of rushers in the Michigan backfield all struggled to get anything going. Ultimately, Morris led the Wolverine ball carriers with just 43 yards on 4 attempts.
In the final minute of the third quarter, in a two-score game, Michigan redshirt junior linebacker Jake Ryan forced a fumble recovered by sophomore defensive end Mario Ojemudia. But a false start on first down, an incompletion and then a sack on third down gave the ball, and any momentum that still hung in the balance, right back to Kansas State.
Fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon was the only bright spot for the Wolverines when he set the program’s single-season receiving record in the fourth quarter.
“The record, right now, don’t mean anything without a win,” Gallon said. “Right now, I don’t care about the record.”
After a late field goal put the Wildcats up 24-6 with over eight minutes left in the game, hordes of began to file out.
Morris, who cooled off after his strong start, finished the second half 10-for 19 passing, including an interception with three minutes to go.
Kansas State’s John Hubert punched the ball in from the 1-yard line, giving him 80 yards rushing to lead the Wildcats while securing his team’s first bowl win in five tries.
Michigan went without a touchdown until 1:15 remained in the game when fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint scored on an option pitch — a meaningless end to a disappointing season.