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What to Watch For: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Matt Slovin, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 28, 2013

1. Does Shane Morris show signs of rust?

Last season, as the quarterback for Warren (Mich.) De La Salle High School, Morris, missed two-thirds of the season with a severe case of mononucleosis.

This year, now a freshman and backing up redshirt junior Devin Gardner — who will miss Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State (7-5) in Tempe, Ariz. with what Michigan coach Brady Hoke has been calling turf toe — Morris has seen action in just three games.

But he’ll be thrust into the spotlight as his first start as a Wolverine comes, unexpectedly, in a bowl game — albeit a lesser one than Michigan fans are accustomed. Only against Central Michigan, the season opener, has Morris played significantly this year.

If Morris isn’t game-ready or, worse, gets rattled early, the Wolverines could be in for a long evening. Morris’ backup, redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy, has seen even less action after sitting out with a torn ACL.

2. Who controls the line of scrimmage when Kansas State has the ball?

Michigan has often looked impressive stopping the run this season, but Kansas State presents a challenge on the ground.

The Wildcats feature two threats out of the backfield. The first is undersized running back John Hubert, who averages over five yards per attempt. Additionally, Kansas State’s second quarterback, Daniel Sims, rarely throws the ball, so the Wolverines can cheat and expect a run when he is in the game.

But unless Michigan’s front seven can get a push, it won’t matter. The Wildcats have the capability to run all over even the usually solid Michigan runs defense.

3. Does the offensive line continue to make progress?

The offensive line protected Gardner well, for the most part, in the season finale nail-biting loss to Ohio State. But it’s probably even more important that the unit keeps Morris on his feet — an early sack could shake the freshman up and make his first game as a Michigan starter a hostile one.

But that performance is most certainly more of the exception than the rule for the offensive line. Fifth-year senior tackle Taylor Lewan will want to finish his Michigan career as strong as possible, not just for the program, but also for his own NFL Draft aspirations.

If Michigan fans are to find any positive to take from this year moving forward, it certainly wouldn’t be the offensive line. But seeing the unit develop and take some major strides in the season’s final months would be a good sign for what is to come.

4. Which running back(s) will step up?

Hoke has said this week that he expects a balanced running game between fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and freshmen De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green. That’s how things went in the Ohio State game, and the team had one of its best rushing efforts of the year.

With Gardner out, that’s one less threat on the Wolverines to run the ball, so one of the running backs will likely have to have a big day for Michigan to win. It’s hard not to expect Morris to be at least a little shaky in the pocket, so the running backs will need big days.