November 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Michigan State tries on bully role for size

MSU linebacker Denicos Allen (28), here sacking Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase last week, leads the Spartans with 48 tackles, including three sacks. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

The Spartans just don’t get it, or stubbornly refuse to get it. I thought the Wolverines made it pretty clear with their 12-10 romp last year that they were issuing a “restore order” order, and this rivalry was legally required to resume its natural course.

But the strangest thing has happened at Michigan State, a transformation that has given our state an identity crisis. The Spartans have the menacing defense and physical front and — dare I say? — tinge of arrogance. The Wolverines are unsure of themselves, a bit shaky, maybe even a tad — dare I say? — insecure.

With all the talk of bullies and brothers and beatings and belligerence, it’s hard to tell if Michigan State is hosting Michigan Saturday or welcoming Little Boy Blue. The Spartans (7-1) and Wolverines (6-1) have virtually the same record, virtually the same ranking, virtually the same waist sizes (I’m guessing), and yet Michigan State apparently is the overwhelming favorite.

That’s fine, I suppose, if you’re into the whole role-reversal fetish. I’m not saying Michigan State is threatening to regain control of the state and all the perks that come with it, including unlimited coneys. I’m just saying if Mark Dantonio were asked whether his program was elite, I’m pretty sure he’d snap, “This is Michigan State, for God’s sakes!”

It’s quite a turn for the Spartans, winning four of the past five meetings and poised to practically wrap up the Big Ten’s Legionnaires division with a victory Saturday. Next thing you know, they’ll call themselves Team 117 and start signing recruits with more than two or three stars.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter Michigan State still has only two gears on offense — predictable and punting. On the other side, Michigan plays defense these days with the ferocity of Eastern Michigan, not to insult Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines also display the lateral mobility of the Paul Bunyan Trophy, not to insult the Bunyan family.

So we need to determine if this is the new normal, or a mere blip. Two years ago in East Lansing, the Spartans won their fourth straight in the rivalry, 28-14, and in the process, hit and twisted heads as if playing with dolls. They turned a few heads, too. The punching culprit is gone but the punchee, Taylor Lewan, is still here. And he admitted, semi-respectfully, that Michigan got “bullied.”

This prompted social-service workers to demand passes for Saturday’s game, in case a bullying lawsuit is necessary. The Spartans are taking their new status seriously, to the point Dantonio admitted this week he liked Brady Hoke, and also had an affinity for Jon Hoke. Yes, Brady is little brother to Jon, so you figure it out.

As a beacon in this community, I’ll stand up and say we need to suspend all the big-little-step-brother talk until we can sort it out. Michigan State hasn’t earned permanent upper-bunk status, and after decades of Big Brotherhood, Michigan isn’t ready yet to accept hand-me-down jocks and mouthguards (eww). We’ll know the transformation is complete when Michigan fans start serving Busch Light and deer meat at their tailgates, while Michigan State folks bust out the Chardonnay and complain about stadium clock operators named Bob.

I give the Spartans credit. They did a good job this week pretending the Wolverines are still their biggest rival. I didn’t hear one mention from Michigan State coaches or players about the larger significance of beating Ohio.

Before these rivals completely change identities, let’s revisit a couple classic jokes I just made up:

Q: How many Wolverines does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 110,001 — one to change it and 110,000 to reminisce how Bo would’ve motivated the bulb to change itself by famously snarling, “The bulb, the bulb, the bulb.”

Q: How many Spartans does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Three — one to change it, one to chug a beer and crush the bulb on his forehead, and one to argue Michigan State’s Bulb-Changing Bachelor’s Degree is just as respected as Michigan’s.

Early in the season, Michigan riled things up by sending a skywriting plane across the state to scrawl messages of love and hope. We know the Wolverines are good at blowing smoke, but one plane strayed over East Lansing and accidently wrote “Go Blue” within view of Spartan Stadium. According to my flimsy sources, Michigan State will respond Saturday with a slightly different skywriting message of love and hope: “Hail this, you #%*&*$%!”

Frankly, we don’t need such vitriol. And I expect clean, tough competition — brother helping brother off the ground, maybe even picking up brother’s helmet after viciously yanking it off. The Spartans’ defense can be brutish, especially with Shilique Calhoun wearing that Halloween facemask and crushing footballs as if they were pumpkins.

But the Spartans do have something to fear, and it’s not just Arrogance Overload. It’s the same thing the Wolverines sometimes fear — Devin Gardner. He’s Denard Robinson 2.0, capable of making all sorts of stunning plays for either team.

Perhaps times indeed are changing. Like they always say, there are only two seasons in Ann Arbor — basketball season and basketball recruiting season. The Wolverines are still expected to show up Saturday (as far as I know) and might even bring some muscles. No word on whether the social-service counselors will ride with them.

Pick: Michigan State 20-13

Ohio State at Purdue: The Buckeyes haven’t lost under Urban Meyer, but hold on, they haven’t played Purdue on the road yet. Nobody just marches into West Lafayette and comes out with a 34-7 victory. Pick: Ohio State 34-7

Northwestern at Nebraska: Two supposed favorites in the Legionnaires division have stumbled all over themselves, so I don’t feel bad digging up lame jokes. What does the “N” on Northwestern’s helmet stand for? Nerd. What does the “N” on Nebraska’s helmet stand for? Knowledge. Pick: Nebraska 37-21

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