Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is having a tough time settling on a quarterback. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
It’s time to take a deep, sober breath and objectively assess what we’ve seen so far, and try to determine if Michigan and Michigan State are really any good at football this season.
Oh, I know they’re a combined 7-1, but if you remove all the lame opponents — toss Notre Dame out with the trash, too — Michigan and Michigan State are a combined 0-0. And you know what that means? Time to panic!
No, no, that’s not what it means. As our local Big Ten tenants spend their bye week viewing gruesome, unedited tapes of interceptions, dropped passes and missed blocks, I’m here to offer a little perspective. Michigan is not the worst 4-0 team in America, only because Minnesota is 4-0. And Michigan State does not have the worst offense in America, only because — checking, checking — OK, yeah it does.
In some ways, the angst is healthy. Expectations are higher and fans demand more, so when the Spartans offense becomes a football version of the holiday classic “Little Drummer Boy” — puntpuntpuntpuntpunt, puntpuntpuntpunt — it’s not acceptable. When Mark Dantonio changes quarterbacks like most of us change underwear — twice a week, more often in case of an accident — that’s a problem.
And when Michigan has to hire a skywriter to fly over its own stadium and etch the message “Throw the ball to our guys!” that’s a problem too. The good news for Brady Hoke is, Michigan made it through the brutal part of its schedule, overcoming daunting odds to edge Akron and Connecticut, and now prepares for the mushy Big Ten.
What does it say about Michigan that it beat Akron and Connecticut by a combined seven points, but beat Notre Dame by 11? What does it say about Notre Dame? What does it say about Michigan State, which lost to Notre Dame? What does it say about me that I fill a column with inane rhetorical questions?!
It says nobody has any idea if the Wolverines and Spartans and Irish and Zips and Lions and Bears are remotely decent. Michigan State has a defense tough enough to dominate the NFC North, and an offense that would struggle to gain consecutive first downs against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Michigan pieced together needlessly dramatic comebacks and still plummeted to 18th in the poll. At this rate, the Wolverines will be 11-0 and ranked 43rd.
Now, Big Ten play is under way, as you can tell by the plaintive yelps across the Midwest. Ohio State is expected to wrap up the Lederhosen Division as early as Saturday night, when it hosts its only viable competitor, Wisconsin. But at least the Legionnaires Division is wide open, and dare I say Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern are tri-favorites? I can’t add Nebraska because of the new Nebraska state law forbidding the use of force on opposing ballcarriers. Also, there’s a chance on any given Saturday that Bo Pelini’s head will spin 360 degrees and pop off.
But Michigan and Michigan State have a shot if they can fix teensy flaws, and by “teensy flaws,” I mean “incomprehensibly baffling flaws.” For instance, Dantonio has somewhere between zero and four quarterbacks, with the smart money on zero. This confuses him to the point where in key moments, he might ask a freshman receiver to heave a trick pass into triple coverage for a “change of pace.”
I’m not saying Dantonio’s judgment is shaky right now. I’m just saying, if he managed the Tigers, he’d bat Miguel Cabrera ninth for a “change of pace.” Normally, I’m not granted access during bye weeks, but I popped into Dantonio’s office and couldn’t believe what I saw (probably because I’m making it up).
There was Dantonio sitting in the corner, clutching four dolls with names taped to their backs. He was talking to them in a soothing voice, and periodically pounding them on the floor. The room was dark and he appeared to have a five-day growth of beard, although I could be mistaken.
Quarterbacks long have driven coaches batty. That’s also an issue right now for Hoke, who has watched Devin Gardner channel his inner gardener, sprinkling footballs around as if they were apple seeds. It doesn’t help that Michigan’s offensive line currently boasts the sturdiness and tenacity of a Little Debbie jelly roll.
Maybe the problem is Gardner’s No. 98 jersey. I’m no physics whiz, but it seems to me the curvaceous “9” and “8” are more cumbersome than the sleek “1” and “2,” and could be slowing him down. I know that makes absolutely no sense but nothing around here does, except for my always-astute picks.
■Wisconsin at Ohio State: While Michigan and Michigan State yearn for one stable quarterback, the gluttonous Urban Meyer hogs two. Braxton Miller returns from injury, but the star here actually might be Melvin Gordon of the Badgers. Don’t ask me how, but Wisconsin churns out running backs in higher volume than cheese curds. Ohio State 34-20
Iowa at Minnesota: Speaking of swine, these teams play for the cherished “Floyd of Rosedale,” a bronze pig statue that represents the size and mobility of Iowa and Minnesota players. This is a prime chance for Kirk Ferentz to remind people he still coaches at Iowa. Iowa 27-22
Oklahoma at Notre Dame: Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is all proud of himself for his clever play-calling against Michigan State, which basically consisted of accepting questionable pass-interference penalties. Notre Dame’s game plan this week: Accept questionable offensive holding penalties! Notre Dame 30-24