SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ty Zimmerman knew what happened when he was helped off the field during the first quarter against TCU on Nov. 16.
A coincidence, or just bad luck, the Kansas State safety had suffered another leg injury — this time the right leg — against the same opponent that knocked him from the final two regular-season games last season.
The Junction City native fought back a year ago to play in the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon. He’s done it again this year, set to take the field with the Wildcats on Saturday night when they face Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. — televised on ESPN at 9:15 p.m. (CST.)
“The parallels are crazy — the 10th game of the season, same opponent and the same type of injury from last year (different leg),” Zimmerman said Thursday, speaking to the media for the first time in more than a month. “It was another tough layoff, but at least I had been through it before, so I knew what to expect.”
But this injury was different, in the sense that the All-American safety knew if he didn’t fight to get back, his career would have come to end mid-November. There is no next year for Zimmerman at K-State.
“Senior day was one of the toughest things I ever had to do,” said Zimmerman, who was using crutches on the special day. “I tried to play it through my head and how I was going to go out. I wasn’t going to cry and get emotional. I was going to hold my head high and be thankful for everything I have. You can’t prepare yourself for something like that.”
Zimmerman may have missed out on senior day. He wasn’t going to miss the bowl game too.
“I’m just going to let loose,” said Zimmerman, who is the first K-State safety to be named an All-American in two different seasons. “That’s how I’ve looked at this rehab. I went through it last year and I knew where I could push myself and where to kind of hold back.
“Getting back and playing with these guys one more time was a huge motivational factor for me, knowing where I’ve come from, what it took to get to this point. Hopefully, I can contribute to this team one last time and help us get a win. There’s no holding back on this one.”
A year ago, it was Dante Barnett, who filled in for the injured Zimmerman. Now Barnett is started next to him at the other safety spot. Junior Dylan Schellenberg got the call this year to fill in, picking up 14 tackles and one interception in the two games against Oklahoma and Kansas.
“I told Schellenberg, ‘wow, it happened again’ and we just needed another person to step up,” Barnett said. “It’s weird how that happened the last two years. But Dylan did good and learned a lot from Ty, just like I did last year.”
But there’s really no replacing Zimmerman. He’s etched his name into the rich defensive history at K-State. The four-time All-Big 12 selection has 69 tackles and three interceptions this season — including two that were returned for touchdowns.
The former Junction City QB will be going up against a Wolverines offense that ranked 81st nationally with 382 yards and 33.8 points a game this season under junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who won’t play Saturday because of a foot injury.
Instead, Zimmerman and the Wildcats will see true-freshman quarterback Shane Morris, who has all of nine pass attempts all year.
“I don’t think they’re going to change much,” Zimmerman said. “They have a great running game. When they establish that run, it opens it up for the passing game. They definitely got some talent on the outside.
“For us, it’s not focusing on our opponent, who we’re lining up against — it’s focusing on our own execution, what we’re doing defensively. That’s stopping the run, first and foremost, being good on third down, creating some turnovers for offense.”
No matter what Michigan does offensively, K-State defensive end Ryan Mueller knows one thing for sure — he’s happy Zimmerman is back.
“I’m so excited to have Ty back,” he said. “He’s a tremendous leader for this team and I feel more comfortable with him back there. Dylan Schellenberg did a tremendous job filling in and holding his own, but it’s hard to replace an All-American like Ty Zimmerman. I’m glad my leader and captain is back.”
• K-State sophomore Daniel Sams said Thursday that he intends to sit down with coaches during this offseason and discuss a possible position change, to receiver most likely.
• The Wildcats will be wearing home purple on Saturday night, while Michigan will go with its road whites.
• Saturday’s game at Sun Devil Stadium will be the first on grass for K-State all season. The last time the Wildcats played on natural grass was during last season’s Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
• Though Ty Zimmerman will be back for the bowl game, things don’t look so good for senior guard Keenan Taylor, who was seen in street clothes during the Wildcats’ practices this week. Kicker Jack Cantele is also looking doubtful for Saturday’s game.