Kansas State’s 31-14 victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is the type of game that will be remembered for years in some circles.
It had everything.
Ryan Mueller doused Bill Snyder with a bucket of Gatorade. Players hoisted a trophy. Tyler Lockett broke records. And the Wildcats finally ended a five-game bowl losing streak that dated back to 2002.
From now on, players won’t have to answer questions about their poise or toughness when the postseason arrives. Proving they could win in this setting, in front of 53,284 and a national TV audience on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, was their top priority. They ended up accomplishing more.
“It is such a weight off our shoulders,” senior linebacker Blake Slaughter said. “It feels good for everybody considering where we came from this season, with everyone counting us out and saying we would be fortunate to get five wins. We came back and got eight wins. I am so proud of these guys and the heart they showed.”
This was also one of K-State’s most dominant efforts of the season, the type of victory that oozed style points. Lockett etched his name in the program’s bowl records book by catching 10 passes for 116 and three touchdowns, Jake Waters threw for 271 yards and three scores on a big stage and K-State’s defense looked strong from start to finish.
Throw in the fact that that the Wildcats did it all against one of the most storied programs in college football and they were left with an experience that is hard to beat.
“This will be very meaningful to them for the rest of their lives,” Snyder said. “Michigan is the winningest football program in the history of college football, right? They’re never going to be a bad team. These young guys were victorious over a very fine football team.”
They could see the victory coming. Perhaps that was the best part.
From the moment K-State players arrived in Arizona this week to prepare for their final game, they could tell things were different from previous seasons. Snyder showed emotion, practices were crisp and everyone stayed focused.
Then they took the field and everything went right.
K-State announced early on that it was serious about winning its first bowl game in a decade. The Wildcats scored first, took a 14-3 lead in the first quarter and held a 21-6 advantage at halftime.
That was a welcome change.
Before Saturday, K-State had never scored more than nine points in the first quarter of a bowl. It had also trailed from start to finish in its last two bowl losses. This was the first time it possessed a lead in the postseason since the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.
“We had a different attitude all week,” junior center B.J. Finney said. “Coach was intense and into it. That got a lot of us fired up. That got us focused the entire week. We didn’t let ourselves enjoy the trip so much that we lost sight of why we were here. It was a business trip, we kept it that way and it showed on the field.”
The Wildcats (8-5) started strong behind three touchdown passes from Waters to Lockett and a defense that held the Wolverines (7-6) to field goals and punts.
That combination led to confidence, which turned into momentum and eventually became a victory.
“We know how important it is to take a lead in a bowl game,” offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “It’s two teams who don’t normally play each other and aren’t familiar with each other. The team that gets the first couple scores is going to have a big mental advantage. It was nice to have it on our side this time.”
It all started with a textbook K-State touchdown drive. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Wildcats marched 75 yards in 14 plays, converting four third downs and eating up 7 minutes, 48 seconds of clock along the way, and capped the drive with a six-yard catch by Lockett.
Michigan, behind freshman quarterback Shane Morris, looked poised to tie the game on the ensuing drive, by completing several short passes and driving the Wolverines into the red zone, but K-State’s defense tightened up near the goal line and prevented tight end Devin Funchess from hauling in a jump ball in the end zone. Michigan had to settle for a field goal.
When K-State got the ball back it quickly found the end zone when Waters lofted a pass over coverage into the hands of Lockett for a 29-yard score to give the Wildcats a 14-3 lead.
Michigan once again threatened to answer with a touchdown of its own, but ended up kicking another field goal after reaching the end zone. K-State focused its efforts on stuffing the run and dared Morris, who started his first game in place of injured Devin Gardner, to beat him with his arm. He was unable to.
“If they don’t run the ball everything else is going to teeter out,” Slaughter said. “We were able to take the run away. The defensive line did a great job. We just committed ourselves to that. They tried to attack us on the edges with screens, but you can only throw so many screens on us.”
K-State’s defense dominated the rest of the way, holding Michigan to 261 yards. Morris was 24 of 38 for 196 yards. Michigan rushed for 65 yards.
When Waters found Glenn Gronkowski for a 46-yard gain to reach the red zone and then hit Lockett for an eight-yard touchdown with 4:30 remaining in the second quarter to give K-State a 21-6 lead, Michigan carried the look of a defeated team.
It didn’t help that K-State was able to lean on running back John Hubert in the second half. Hubert, by the way, clinched his first 1,000-yard season by rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown.
“You get down 21-6 so you have to throw it more,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “That hurt. Running the football has got to be a premium for us, and we didn’t do that well enough.”
At halftime, the Wolverines had gained 131 yards, with only 10 coming on the ground, while Lockett was on his way to a monster game. If not for a dropped pass in the end zone from Daniel Sams in the second half, Lockett would have shattered even more K-State bowl receiving records.
Still, it’s not like he, or anyone else, was complaining.
“When you have a special player like Tyler,anytime you got a route, he’s one-on-one, I’m looking for him,” Waters said. “I think he’s going to win it. He knows he’s going to win it. I just have that confidence in him. He can get open for any route.”
Combined with the way K-State’s defense played, frustrating Morris and forcing Michigan into three-and-outs, the Wildcats didn’t need much in the second half. The third quarter was filled with missed opportunities on offense. But the fourth quarter felt like a party.
It was a fitting conclusion to a season that started slow, but ended successful. As difficult as it must have been for Snyder to watch the Wildcats lose four of their first six games, his team showed improvement every week.
That was most evident in the postseason.
“The great thing about it is it sets up a foundation for a new era,” Lockett said. “When you look at the past bowl games, losing (five) straight, finally ending it today, actually winning, now we’re on a one-win streak. I think this really sets the foundation for next year, because you have a lot of guys who are happy right now in the locker room.”