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December 27, 2013

Game Up Close: Two-for-one

The weight resting on the shoulders of Kansas State quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams just days before the biggest game of the season is as heavy as it was when this whole thing started months ago. Then again, that's generally what comes with the territory of their position. But this is different. So are the reasons behind the comparable pressure.

The statistics would say this isn't a great running team as the Wolverines don't crack the Top 100 in the Football Bowl Subdivision at a pedestrian 130.8 yards per game on the ground and that's probably pretty accurate. Only running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has racked up over 500 yards this season and no player has picked up over 38 yards on a single carry. This rushing attack is just average at best, but the talent is there and so is a steady, veteran offensive line for that to potentially change in the bowl game. However, not having quarterback Devin Gardner, the team's second leading rusher, under center will likely hurt the production of Toussaint and other ball carriers Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith against a Wildcats rushing defense that has been fairly decent all year against better teams with more explosive backs. All signs point to K-State having little to no problems here.
Advantage: K-State
Coming off a career-high 220 yards in the regular-season finale at Kansas, it appears senior running back John Hubert is hitting his stride at the right time and is poised to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2013 as the 5-foot-7, 191-pounder is just 32 yards from reaching that coveted goal. It hasn't been the ideal season for Hubert, but this is a good opportunity for him to make up for it once and for all and cap off his career with a strong performance. It won't be easy, though. The Wolverines have been solid all year and allow just 139.4 yards per game on the ground. The good news for K-State is that Michigan has been prone to giving up yards to running backs like Hubert and dual-threat quarterbacks like Daniel Sams. The key will be to establish the ground game early and often.
Let's just put it out there: This is going to be interesting. After going virtually the entire season and almost every snap with Devin Gardner as the signal caller, the Wolverines will start true freshman Shane Morris at quarterback against the Wildcats. Gardner has been suffering from what has been reported as turf toe since the Wolverines lost to Ohio State to end the regular season. With Gardner, a dual-threat quarterback, Michigan is a balanced and potentially explosive offense. With Morris, a natural pocket passer, it's a complete toss up. Morris has only seen action in four games this season and completed 5 of 9 passes for 65 yards with an interception. This is either going to be a blessing or a curse for K-State, but stopping top targets Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess should be the first priority so Morris can't find any sort of rhythm. Having senior free safety Ty Zimmerman back should help with that immensely for the Wildcats.
Advantage: K-State
The beauty of enduring the challenges of figuring out a two-quarterback system is that Jake Waters and Daniel Sams have seen just about every type of defense thrown their way this season. So, with that said, nothing the Wolverines will try to do or disguise will surprise either quarterback and both should be ready to adapt on the fly. And while the Wolverines aren't as good in the secondary as they are at stopping the run, the back end has been very opportunistic in 2013 with 17 interceptions. It will be imperative for Waters, and Sams, to take care of the ball in passing situations and also spread it around to various receivers as Michigan attempts to slow down wide receiver Tyler Lockett. If they limit their mistakes, both quarterbacks should be able to find some openings.
Advantage: K-State
Although K-State hasn't been stellar in the special teams department this season and will be without starting placekicker Jack Cantele once again, it still enters the game with better overall unit. Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson have game-changing ability in kickoff and punt returns and punter Mark Krause has been rather consistent all year. Add in the fact that Michigan will be without its kicker, senior Brendan Gibbons, and this looks promising for the Wildcats just as long as it takes care of business and doesn't allow a big return to shift momentum like it did in last year's bowl game.
Advantage: K-State
If there was ever a bowl game with a strange contrast of seasons, you can throw this one in that same category because both of these two teams have been going in the opposite direction for the last two months. K-State has won five of its last six after starting 2-4, while Michigan has gone 1-4 in its last five after starting 6-1. The Wildcats clearly hold the advantage here and could very well end their bowl-game losing streak, but the Wolverines are still a good football team and will try to keep that decade-long drought intact. This would be a different game, and probably much better for Michigan, if Devin Gardner was healthy, but K-State coach Bill Snyder won't complain. This is about winning and the Wildcats seem to have more going for them right now.
Advantage: K-State
Heading into the 2013 campaign, all of this was about replacing Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and continuing the program's winning ways under the direction of legendary head coach Bill Snyder. Fast-forward 12 games and now the two signal-callers are the headliners as they enter the spotlight for the final time this season when K-State, 7-5, takes on Michigan, 7-5, in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 9:15 p.m. CST on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. That's how far they've come. That's how much Waters and Sams mean to this team.

"Just how dynamic those two are in their playmaking ability and what they offer to this team has been huge because you know, behind the center, every snap you got somebody that's capable of making a big play in any situation and on any play, any down," junior wide receiver Curry Sexton said. "Just the way they interact and the way that they feed off of each other is so fun to watch and so fun to be a part of. They work well together and stayed by each other's side through it all.

"I'm proud of those guys. I know that, being the competitors that they are, they both wish they were out there on every down, but they've handled it so well. There's not really enough you can say about those two and how they've handled everything and how they've performed when they got the chance."

It's not every day that you see a two-quarterback system work in any level of football. Nor is it highly likely to watch a team crawl out of a 2-4 hole that featured head-scratching play and puzzling rotations to win five of the final six contests. Yet, both happened for K-State this season and Waters and Sams were a big reason as to why it did.

"I think when me and Daniel are playing well and we're kind of switching in and out and being smooth and fluid and everything, that just makes our team better as a whole," Waters said.

There's no doubt. When the contrasting quarterbacks, and the coaches to an extent, figured it out, as did the Wildcats. It's not just a coincidence.

"It's so contagious," Sexton said. "Like you saw in those games when Daniel was running the ball really well and his energy and everything. He gets up and he's hyped and that gets everybody else into it. Then in that Oklahoma game when Jake was spinning the ball and torching the Oklahoma secondary. You feed off that stuff. They get excited then you get excited because when they get that confidence in them and say, 'I can't be stopped right now.' Then you know that they're going to go out there and be tough to stop. That makes it so much easier on all of us."

You better believe that includes the defense, too.

"It's super contagious," junior defensive end Ryan Mueller said. "I love it when guys are playing well for us, especially if they're on my team. You know, seeing Jake throwing big bombs to Tyler Lockett and Lockett running in for the score, it's a huge confidence boost for the whole team and everybody on the team gets hyped so it's awesome."

"It's very beneficial because when we see that, they're taking care of business on offense and it's almost like we can't let them down on defense," senior linebacker Tre Walker said. "It just strives everybody and it pushes the energy up and it pushes the defense to want to get the ball off the field in three downs. When that happens and the offense starts to move and they start to do their job, it just makes a great game for us."

Now it's time to complete this improbable turnaround with a signature win and it will be up to Waters and Sams to lead the charge against a sound Michigan defense that has lost four of its last five games.

"Well, in any ball game that you play your quarterback better be a factor," Snyder said. "If he's not then you've got some major, major issues… Both of them have to be a factor -- a positive factor. They will be a factor. We want them to be a positive factor."

Led primarily by the right arm of Waters, who completed 59 percent of his throws for 2,198 yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 starts this season, and the legs of Sams, who racked up 784 yards on 148 carries with 11 touchdowns, all the components are there to cause the Wolverines problems. It's just a matter of how Michigan defense coordinator Greg Mattison wants to attack it that will likely dictate who plays more.

"They present a challenge in that 15 (Waters) can throw it and he's mobile. 4 (Sams) can run it and he can throw it enough to keep you honest," he said. "You've got a combination of two pretty good things right there."

Only time will tell what will take place, but K-State is in trusted hands with Waters and Sams in the huddle. And as generic and cliché as it seems, these two starting the charge and leading with their play is essential to any sort of success.

"It's one of the sparks," Waters said. "When we go out there on offense and when we go and score, that gives everybody confidence. You know, 'Hey, we're rolling' or 'Hey, we're good to go.' When I'm on the sideline and I see Daniel making a play or something, I want to get out there and make a play. That gives me confidence knowing we can play with these guys.

"That's definitely a big thing for us to start fast and make big plays."

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