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Win or lose in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, a merciful end to 2013

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 28, 2013

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the list of things that have gone wrong this year for the Michigan football team, the ones leading up to Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (10:15 p.m., ESPN) are probably not the most significant.

Considering what the Wolverines will miss against Kansas State (5-4 Big 12, 7-5), that’s telling.

Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, the Wolverines’ offensive creator, will be out with complications from turf toe. Fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons will also miss the game to attend to family issues in Florida.

Meanwhile, fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan was interviewed following an alleged incident with an Ohio State fan after the Nov. 30 game. Lewan, who has not been arrested or charged, said earlier this week that he was attempting to break up a fight, and he will play Saturday.

In the scheme of a painful 2013 for Michigan (3-5 Big Ten, 7-5) overall, these issues fit in well. For the Wolverines this year, trouble has proven harder to erase than a buffalo sauce stain from a white shirt.

The year started with a close loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, a disappointing exit for stars Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs. It will end with another bowl game, Michigan’s first non-January bowl since the 2005 Alamo Bowl.

In between, Michigan has suffered a serious knee injury in the spring to redshirt junior linebacker Jake Ryan and a season-ending foot injury to sophomore receiver Amara Darboh. Then there were the near-embarrassments against Akron and Connecticut, a slew of turnovers, a stunning loss to Penn State and an equally startling drubbing by Michigan State.

That began a string of negative rushing efforts and losses to Nebraska and Iowa. Top recruit Da’Shawn Hand chose Alabama over Michigan in November, and the top Michigan commit, Jabrill Peppers, flirted with visiting other schools. Then finally, a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, followed by the latest wounds in the days before the bowl.

“It’s tough to go out 7‑5,” Lewan said. “My voice is hoarse from just yelling.”

Michigan’s players acknowledge that a win won’t save the season or define the year. But it is a chance to enjoy a final respite from a frustrating season, against a team that seemed to be the Wolverines’ equal.

Gardner’s injury thrust that into the unknown. The 74-year-old Kansas State coach Bill Snyder refers to Michigan’s quarterbacks as either “the Gardner youngster” or “the Morris youngster.”

The Morris youngster will get the start, but Shane Morris is so much of a youngster that Snyder doesn’t even have tape to break down of the freshman.

“There’s no way that I could guess exactly how they would utilize the young man,” Snyder said. “But you have to prepare for their offense. He is a part of it.”

Morris has said he runs all of offensive coordinator Al Borges’s gameplan, but Morris and Gardner play different games. For starters, Morris is a lefty and Gardner throws right-handed. Gardner has had four years to learn the playbook. And though Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Morris is an athlete with an ability to step up in the pocket, his speed won’t change games the way Gardner’s can.

Plus Morris has yet to show he can take the assault he’ll likely endure behind the Wolverines’ struggling offensive line.

Still, Kansas State has had its share of issues. The Wildcats lost their opening game to North Dakota State and dropped four of their first six games.

Neither team cracks the top 25 nationally in passing offense, rushing offense, total offense or scoring offense. The same goes for the defensive categories — and for turnover margin, sacks and tackles for loss.

But Kansas State has won five of its final six games behind a two-quarterback platoon, a small and dangerous receiver in Tyler Lockett and Ryan Mueller, a havoc-wreaking defensive end.

Following the bowl announcement, according to running back John Hubert, Snyder asked everyone on the team who had won a bowl game to raise their hand.

“Nobody ever raised their hand,” Hubert said. Kansas State hasn’t won a bowl since 2002. “We don’t want that feeling no more.”

Michigan has gone 1-1 in bowl games under Hoke. The Wolverines won’t be playing to exorcise any bowl demons or even to salvage a season. They will be playing for their seniors and for their pride and maybe to end 2013 a little better than it began.

Maybe the loss of Gardner will be too much.