Michigan's hopes for an upbeat sendoff for its seniors thudded to a halt like a dehydrated drifter topping over in the desert. The Wolverines, unable to score touchdowns or stop Kansas State in the first half, left only the dust cloud of a 31-14 loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The ugly end of a 7-6 season in which Brady Hoke's crew lost five of its last six games left nobody anticipating a Happy New Year.
"Disappointing," offered fifth-year senior captain Taylor Lewan. "Definitely a disappointing game. But given the situation, I think this team played just like they did all season.
"I know our record didn't show how hard we worked in the offseason, how hard we fought. The seniors did a good job of laying a foundation for this team."
On a late night in Tempe, the foundation couldn't hold the weight of a defense that couldn't get crucial stops and an offense minus its year-long leader behind center.
That's not to say freshman starter Shane Morris didn't step up when called upon. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards and just one deflected interception late in the game. But with only 65 yards rushing (43 of which belonged to Morris) and the inability to put the ball in the end zone, U-M's offense couldn't compensate for a defense unable to halt a first-half onslaught.
Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters tore up the Wolverines on 21 of 27 passing for 271 yards and three touchdowns. His top Michigan-tasering target, wideout Tyler Lockett, made 10 catches for 116 yards and three first-half touchdowns, giving the Wildcats all the points they'd require.
"You've got to give him credit," Hoke said "He's a good football player. Waters did a nice job of putting the ball in the right place. And you've got to do a better job executing, coverage-wise."
Add in 80 rushing yards on 16 carries by KSU's John Hubert, along with a 21-6 hole dug in the opening 30 minutes, and this one couldn't have a happy ending for the many Michigan fans among the 53, 284 on hand.
The Wolverines certainly faced an uphill battle, from the moment they acknowledged starting quarterback Devin Gardner couldn't see the field in Sun Devils Stadium. But they certainly didn't anticipate a first half in which the only stop they'd manage on defense would involve Waters kneeling with the football.
Kansas State opened the game with a torturous, 14-play, 75-yard drive. Watters kept it alive on a crucial 21-yard scramble on third-and-10 at the KSU 42, then after backup QB Daniel Sams helped dig the Wildcats out of a first-and-goal from the Michigan 18 after a holding call, Waters beat a heavy blitz and gunned a six-yard TD strike to Tyler Lockett.
Morris began his answer in dramatic fashion, completing three straight short throws that went for 13, seven, and 24 yards. Michigan kept mixing it up, and a 14-yard reverse to Devin Funchess took the ball all the way to the KSU 6, but the drive stalled on near-miss throws, the Wolverines settling for Matt Wile's 22-yard field goal, making it 7-3 at the 3:32 mark.
Lockett continued picking apart the Michigan defense on the Wildcats' next series. He returned the kickoff 40 yards to set up a 60-yard TD march, then hauled in a 29-yard Waters bomb to end it. Through one painful 14-3 quarter, quarterbacking proved the least of Michigan's problems.
"We definitely had some opportunities to get off the field on third down," fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon said. "We've just got to execute. We had a couple of breakdowns on big, explosive plays, and that's what the game boiled down to."
Morris stayed hot, hitting 9 of 10 throws in response, mostly quick hitters. He took Michigan from its own 23 to the Wildcats' 9, but once again the Wolverines stalled. Wile's 26-yard field goal at the 7:09 mark of the second quarter made it 14-6.
"We didn't play well enough in a lot of areas," Hoke said. "Third-down conversions on both sides of the ball, and in the redzone we didn't play well enough."
The Wildcats, who went 3-for-3 on touchdowns in first-half possession, simply stayed a step (or two, or three) ahead of the Michigan defense. A quick toss just over the line of scrimmage to fullback Glenn Gronkowski produced a 46-yard rumble topped with a Michigan facemask penalty.
That set up Waters' eight-yard TD toss to - who else - Lockett, and the Wolverines seemingly found themselves in a shootout against a machine gun.
That scenario didn't hold in the third quarter, featuring Kansas State drives blunted by a 40-yard field goal miss by Ian Patterson and a Sams fumble that Michigan's Mario Ojemudia dove on at the U-M 25. But the Wolverines couldn't move past the 50 in that span, putting themselves into desperation mode for the final quarter.
Patterson's 22-yard field goal with just 8:09 remaining moved that meter even farther into the red. An 18-point deficit that took 52 minutes to build required a miracle to make vanish in the final eight.
Those dreams stayed as dry as the desert in which Sun Devils Stadium makes its home.
A Dante Barnett interception and 51-yard return of a deflected Morris throw set up Kansas State's final touchdown, a one-yard plunge by Hubert. The pickoff marked Morris' only turnover mistake all night, and by then the outcome had been long since decided.
Michigan scored on a three-yard option pitch from Morris to fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint with 1:15 remaining and secured a two-point conversion on a throw from Gallon to Hayes. But there weren't enough tricks in Houdini's bag to get this one back.
Fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon did manage to secure nine catches for 89 yards, giving him the most receiving yards in a single season in the history of Michigan football. But recent history felt painful enough that Gallon wasn't close to celebrating.
He noted: "The record, right now, doesn't mean anything without a win, especially with these guys … yeah, right now, I don't care about the record."
As they quietly loaded up and moved out into the night, plenty of them cared about a 7-6 record. But for now, there wasn't a thing to be done about it.