By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
Shane Morris came to Ann Arbor this summer on a mission. The incoming freshman wasn’t looking to redshirt, an expected route for the young player. Rather, he wanted to compete for Michigan’s starting quarterback gig.
Five months later after stepping onto Michigan’s campus, Morris will be living his life-long dream. He’s grown up with Michigan. There’s a picture online of him donning a No. 7 Michigan jersey as a child. This Saturday, he’ll take the field in Tempe, Arizona, as the Wolverines’ lead single-caller for the first time in his career against Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl.
“It’s been my dream since I was a little kid to be the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan and finally having that opportunity and that being in a bowl game, that’s huge, and I’m really excited,” Morris told the Detroit News Thursday at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl media day. “My goal was to be the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan, that’s what I wanted to do, and I didn’t really have a plan to redshirt.
“Whatever the coaches need me to do, that’s what I would have done. Right now, I need to be the starting quarterback for the University of Michigan and that’s what I’m going to do.”
For the past month, Morris has received the first-team snaps during practice with redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner out with what Michigan head coach Brady Hoke classified as turf toe. Thursday afternoon, cbssports.com’s Bruce Feldman, citing an unnamed source, reported that Gardner’s injury was much worse — a broken foot suffered during the third quarter in the Ohio State game on November 30.
The next generation
Gardner’s injury ushers in a new era of Michigan football, at least for now, should he return for his final year of eligibility. A highly touted quarterback recruit out of Warren De La Salle, Morris has only seen limited action at the collegiate level, a problem Michigan has been dealt with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl approaching.
He’s 5-for-9 with 65 passing yards and an interception this season.
Morris’ inexperience at the collegiate level coincides with Michigan’s rugged September. The goal entering the season for the program was to give him life-game reps early on, building his experience in case Gardner went down with an injury. Rather, Michigan struggled with inconsistencies against teams like Connecticut and Akron, two key games for Morris’ development.
The last hoorah
Fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan returns home to Arizona for his final collegiate game with Michigan. The Wolverines have practiced at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, Lewan’s alumnus. Despite an ongoing investigation for an alleged assault following the Wolverines’ loss to Ohio State, Lewan will play in the game.
Michigan’s five keys to the game
1. How far along is Morris?
With limited playing time during Michigan’s season opener, plenty of unknown surrounds Morris entering his first start. That was nearly five months ago. It’s safe to bet he isn’t the same quarterback he was back then, but no one besides the Michigan program really knows whether or not that is the case. Is Morris ready to lead the Wolverines to a win on a sizable stage? We’ll find out Saturday night, but he’ll need all the help he can get.
2. Michigan’s offense can’t afford routine lapse
Throughout the course of the season, Michigan has struggled to show consistency offensively, often suffering some sort of lapse. Early on, it was the offensive line. During November, the running game became non-existent in crucial match-ups.
Now, everything seems to finally taken shape. But do remember, the last time Michigan played meaningful football came nearly a month ago. The time off could become an issue the Wolverines certainly can’t afford to experience.
However, Michigan does have one thing in its favor against Kansas State. The Wildcats entered the season with only one returning defensive starter, setting up a rebuilding situation.
While they’ve turned the page and improved as the year progressed, Kansas State will still be facing an offense with numerous weapons and a bit of secrecy. Since he hasn’t received any live snaps since the beginning of November, Morris brings the bare minimum in game film for the Wildcats to decipher. Think back to Michigan’s matchup with Ohio State last season; with Denard Robinson returning from a nerve injury, the Buckeyes weren’t sure what to expect from him. The secrecy played a role in the Wolverines’ short-lived success.
So, there’s no room for error.
3. So long, spread
Ah, finally. After wanting to mold it into the offensive game plan since June, Hoke and the Wolverines will likely shell out a pro-style offense against Kansas State. Morris has a hard throwing arm that fits the pro-style offense like a puzzle piece.
The question is, can the rest of the Michigan offense adjust to a quarterback with a much different skill set in just under a month?
The passing game will be crucial for the Wolverines. Targets like Devin Funchess and Jake Butt should thrive in the expected game plan, while Jeremy Gallon would bring his prowess nonetheless.
But to power the pro-style, hard-slinging passing offense, the Wolverines will need an effort that has been covered in question marks.
4. Run like the wind
In order to successfully set up the passing game in a pro-style offense, the Wolverines will need to implement a strong, consistent running game. With a speedy veteran in Fitzgerald Toussaint and bruisers De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green, it seems like it can be an easy task for Michigan.
Things started to click on the ground for the team against Ohio State. That’s when Michigan experienced most of its offense success. The same will be crucial against Kansas State.
Morris doesn’t have the extra dimension that Gardner offers. Now, that’s not saying he can’t pose a threat with his legs, it just won’t be to the level that Gardner could offer. A sizable performance from the backfield trio could, and should, play dividends for the Wolverines, easing pressure off Morris’ shoulders in his first start.
Pressuring the quarterback and Michigan’s defense are just two things that don’t go hand-in-hand. It’s been a struggle the team has faced all season long, and serves as a factor in the passing defense’s lackluster performance as well.
Frank Clark was nearly non-existent against an All-American tackle during the Ohio State game. The Wolverines will need a better effort out of him and the remainder of the defensive line for any success against a Kansas State offense that put up a fight against the likes of Big 12 juggernauts Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma.
On paper, Michigan and Kansas State are two similar teams — far closer than anyone might have imagined weeks ago. The theme around the Wolverines season was a play or two away. The team had a shot to reach 10 wins and perhaps the Big Ten championship game, but they also could have failed to be bowl eligible, a huge step backwards for Hoke and company.
The same can be said about Kansas State.
The Wildcats lost their season opener to two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State after holding a solid halftime lead. The same misfortunes struck when the team faced Baylor and Oklahoma State, two match-ups that would have preverbally shifted the outcome of the season. Like Michigan, Kansas State was routinely a play or two away.
Although jobs have been saved with the team’s performance against Ohio State, Michigan badly needs to win the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State.
Expectations coming into the year were high, a Big Ten championship seemed on the horizon. But now, the Wolverines find themselves in a pre-New Years Day bowl game for the first time since 2005, and only the fourth time in the past three decades. This isn’t just any pre-New Years Day bowl, though. The 10:15 p.m. slot on national television will be huge from a marketing and recruiting standpoint. A win for Michigan would help save grace amongst youngsters one day hoping to advance up football’s ranks.
Prediction: Kansas State 24, Michigan 21
In order to win, the Wolverines will likely need a full effort offensively while starting a true freshman for the first time in his career. Knowing this year’s team, that probably won’t happen. A 7-6 finish is a likely scenario, but hey, things are looking up for Michigan.