Taylor Lewan Is Michigan's Most Important Player in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Andrew CoppensContributor IDecember 27, 2013

Nov 9, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines offensive linesman Taylor Lewan (77) walks off the field after the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Michigan Stadium. Nebraska won 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Weeks of speculation ended on Thursday as Michigan Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke named freshman Shane Morris the starter for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Instantly, one player became more important than anyone else to Michigan's chances of success—left tackle Taylor Lewan. 

Michigan's star senior and first-team All-Big Ten selection will be tasked with protecting the front side of a left-handed quarterback making his first ever start. 

Protecting a blindside for 12 games and having to reconfigure your footwork in a month's time can be a challenge, even for the best of linemen. 

ANN ARBOR, MI - AUGUST 31: Shane Morris #7 of the Michigan Wolverines rolls out during a game with the Central Michigan Chippewas at Michigan Stadium on August 31, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"Just because he's a left-handed quarterback, we might run things a little bit different about how he feels it," said Lewan during Thursday's media day at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. "Other than that, we're confident in him running the same offense that Devin ran, try to put him into a position to be successful."

Lewan and the Wolverines will be going up against a defense that has continuously gotten better as the season has gone on, and it shows in where it ranks nationally.

Kansas State enters the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl giving up just 23.7 points per game (35th nationally) and recoding 27 sacks as a team (47th nationally).

Michigan's offensive line has come under fire this season, thanks to poor rushing results (ranking 100th nationally in rushing yards per game) and giving up 35 sacks on the year.

Only Northwestern (36) and Purdue (38) gave up more sacks than the Wolverines in the Big Ten. 

That's an issue considering Lewan will be going head-to-head with Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Ryan Mueller—who ended the regular season with 61 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and, most worrisome for Michigan, 11.5 sacks. 

Lewan's presence and NFL-caliber ability will be put to the test big time against Mueller, and he will need to be on point from the very get-go to help Morris ease into his first career start. Yet, it's a matchup Lewan is looking forward to. 

"If I get the opportunity to go up against him a bunch, I'd love that," said Lewan. "I'm sure he'll have a good game, but my job is to make sure he doesn't have a good game."

It shouldn't be a problem according to Hoke, who says Lewan has had his best season of football in his career. 

"He's (Lewan) had a better year in football than he's ever had," said Hoke. "He's played his best football. He took on a lot of responsibility as a captain and as a guy who felt entitled to help young offensive linemen grow. I think he did that in a very positive way. I think his maturity, all those things that go along with being a year older, really has helped."

Lewan and the rest of the offensive line will also help to take the pressure off of Morris by opening up holes in the run game—another area of consternation all season long for the Wolverines. 

Michigan finished 11th in the Big Ten, rushing for just 130.8 yards per game as a team. With Morris at quarterback, the Wolverines may be a bit more committed to the power run game they've wanted to run. 

It appears that it will be running back by committee for Michigan on Saturday night: 

Just don't expect the offense to change all that much with Morris in for Devin Gardner. 

"Everything has been the same," wide receiver Jeremy Gallon said. "Just because he's (Shane Morris) a younger quarterback doesn't mean he doesn't know his material. I feel like he's on point with his material. He knows what he has to do. He's good at reading the defense, checking out of things if he has to. He's a smart kid. So, I don't feel like anything has changed."

Morris may be the focal point of the game on Saturday night, but it is Lewan who will set the tone for the success or failure of the Wolverines offense, and that makes him the most important player Michigan has.


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Andy on Twitter: @ andycoppens.