SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When the bowl announcements were made earlier this month, the potential matchup between Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller seemed like pure gold — a one-on-one type of battle seemingly built for national TV.
You have a former walk-on turned All-American with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss on one side. On the other, you have a two-time All-American getting set for his 41st consecutive start at left tackle, a 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior projected to go in the top 15 picks of the NFL draft.
It’s the matchup of matchups — No. 77 Lewan against No. 44 Mueller — right? Both linemen say so. But they also acknowledge that it may not even happen all that often Saturday night when the Wildcats meet the Wolverines in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 9:15 p.m. (CST) from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. — televised on ESPN.
“It’s tough to say how much we’ll see of that matchup because in those 12 games, he rarely lined up on left tackle,” Lewan said of Mueller. “They move him around a lot and put him in situations to be successful.
“I know when he lines up in the interior — Michael Schofield, those guys we have inside — they’re going to have to their hands full. I’ll be looking out, keeping an eye on him and making sure he stays in line, though.”
Lewan — a two-time Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year — said he could envision 12 to 15 plays against K-State’s award-winning defensive end all night, at the most. It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to get the 6-2, 245-pound Mueller even more, though.
“That’s probably pretty accurate,” said Mueller, who is tied with Nyle Wiren (1996) and Ian Campbell (2006) for K-State’s single-season sack record. “I play all over the defensive line. The coaches like to move me around. I think I’m pretty good from both sides. But I’m sure we’ll get a couple plays against each other.”
That’s the thing about this matchup — Lewan and Mueller know all about each other and both want the opportunity to square off with a bowl victory on the line. To be the best, you have to beat the best, Mueller said.
“Obviously, I’ve heard all about his accolades and know he’s a tremendous talent, a possible No. 1 draft pick,” Mueller said during the team’s media day event on Thursday at the Camelback Inn and Resort. “Hearing top draft pick, back-to-back All-American, obviously I’d be going against somebody who is very talented. I love that.
“It’s a great opportunity to go up against a guy who has NFL scouts drooling all over him.”
Lewan’s path to greatness was a little different than Mueller’s. The Cave Creek, Ariz., native was no walk-on, and has been a fixture on the Michigan offensive the last four seasons. But it doesn’t mean he can’t respect the path Mueller took to becoming arguably one of the best defensive linemen in the country — highlighted by a breakout junior season.
“He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s strong, has a mean spin move and plays to the whistle,” Lewan said. “He’s a former walk-on guy going into his senior year, a second-team All-American, a hard-working guy through and through. That’s unbelievable. He’s a great player. He works hard. That’s his best quality. You can’t say enough good things about him because doesn’t do a lot of things wrong.
“If I get the opportunity to go up against him a bunch, I’d love that.”
Mueller is hoping for the same, perhaps even more so to see where exactly he stacks up. Maybe this time next year, Mueller will be the talk of NFL scouts.
“For me, going up against arguably the best tackle in the country — that would be great,” he said. “I want to go against the best. I go against Cornelius Lucas everyday and he’s a tremendous talent… I’m looking forward to it and want to know how good I really am.
“To do that, you need to go up against the best.”