ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan has taken a step back for a second straight season under coach Brady Hoke.
The Wolverines were defeated by Kansas State 31-14 Saturday night in the Buffalo Wings Bowl, losing their sixth game in an eight-game stretch that left them barely over .500 and dropped their all-time winning percentage to second in college football behind Notre Dame.
After Hoke won eight games last year and 11 in his debut season with the storied program in 2011, the coach, his staff and players will have a lot of reasons to be motivated to bounce back next year.
"I think this team is going to be very hungry," Hoke said in Tempe, Ariz.
Michigan (7-6) started the season with five consecutive wins, including over the Fighting Irish and Minnesota, before its problems became too much to overcome.
The Wolverines failed to open holes for running backs, to protect quarterback Devin Gardner or to consistently make stops on defense.
Gardner ended up getting hurt in the last game of the regular season, a one-point loss to rival Ohio State, and was ruled out against Kansas State because of a toe injury.
Freshman Shane Morris became the first Michigan quarterback to make his starting debut in the postseason. Morris was 24 of 38 for 196 yards with an interception, passing more than planned because the Wildcats jumped out to a 21-6 lead in the first half.
Jeremy Gallon broke the program's single-season record for yards receiving with 1,373, surpassing Braylon Edwards mark set in 2004.
"The records right now don't mean anything without a win," Gallon said after the game.
Michigan won just twice – in three overtimes at Northwestern and in a 63-47 shootout against Indiana – after its 5-0 start.
Next year, the Wolverines will be without offensive tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, Gallon and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Defensive tackles Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington, safeties Thomas Gordon and Courtney Avery and kicker Brendan Gibbons are also out of eligibility.
This season, Michigan began ranked No. 17 and rose to No. 11 during its undefeated start.
Gardner accounted for a school-record matching five touchdowns – for the first of two times this season – in a 33-21 win over the Fighting Irish. The first of many signs of trouble for the team followed the next week when the Wolverines needed a goal-line stand to beat Akron.
The Wolverines dropped out of The Associated Press poll on Nov. 3 after a 29-6 loss at Michigan State, their fifth setback in 6 years against the rival Spartans. Michigan finished fifth in the six-team Legends Division, extending its Big Ten title drought that dates to 2004.
Michigan's top receiving option next season will be Devin Funchess, whose 748 yards receiving set a single-season school record for a tight end. Derrick Green, one of the young running backs who got a chance to play late in the year, will be back as a sophomore behind an offensive line that needs to grow up fast.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Frank Clark, linebackers Jake Ryan and James Ross along with cornerbacks Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor will return to help a defense that has a lot of room for improvement.
The Wolverines flopped in their first December bowl game since 2005 after a surprisingly solid showing against then-No. 3 Ohio State in the last game of the regular season. They lost 42-41 to the heavily favored Buckeyes, failing to convert on a 2-point conversion with 32 seconds left.
Against Kansas State, the Wolverines found out how much they relied on Gardner because a relatively meaningless TD with 1:15 left avoided their lowest-scoring bowl game in nearly four decades.