Brady Hoke was an assistant coach on the 1997 Wolverine team that shared the national championship with Nebraska. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
For years, we knew what they were all about. They were brutish and brash and big-bellied, and happily engaged in physical contact without a note from the school nurse.
Michigan and Nebraska were heaving symbols of strength who rammed the ball down the field, tackled without yelping “ow!” and periodically stomped into the conference cafeteria to shake down lightweights for lunch money. You might even recall they shared a national championship in 1997, when the Wolverines had the fiercest team in the land and the Cornhuskers had the luckiest.
In many ways, Michigan and Nebraska are kindred spirits, if kindred spirits can weigh 320 pounds and struggle to catch their breaths. And when they collide Saturday in Michigan Stadium, we’ll seek answers to a few tough questions. Such as:
■ Can these programs recapture past identities or is that like trying to use a bag phone in a Smartphone world?
■ Are these the weakest 6-2 teams in Big Ten history or what?
■ Will both teams participate in the pre-game bake sale?
Answers: “Beats me,” “Possibly,” and, “Of course.”
Last I checked, Michigan was still flossing green cleat shards out of its teeth. I’m not saying Michigan State kicked its rival in unmentionable ways in that 29-6 romp. I’m saying Michigan State kicked its rival repeatedly in unmentionable ways. The Spartans enjoyed it so much, the celebration continues. State police say I-96 will remain closed through the weekend because — according to the official statement — the highway is clogged with crushed kegs, smoldering fires and, most troubling, “charred, melted remnants of winged headgear.”
Mark Dantonio was so pleased with his team’s effort, he canceled this week’s game. Let that be a sobering reminder — to the victor goes the spoils, and to the Victors go the soils. The Spartans were so bullying in their triumph, they might as well have gone incognito, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of incognito, it’s been difficult to recognize the Wolverines and Cornhuskers lately. In 1997, Michigan was unbeaten under Lloyd Carr and Nebraska was unbeaten under Tom Osborne, and to this day, experts argue what would’ve happened if they’d met, and whether Michigan would’ve won 24-6 or 24-3.
A few years later, both programs tried to get all tricky, which isn’t their nature. The Cornhuskers hired a fancy offensive guru named Bill Callahan, and it was a disaster. The Wolverines hired a fancy offensive guru whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, and it was a disaster.
While Michigan and Nebraska were dancing around, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin were out collecting bruising football players. Now here come the Wolverines and Cornhuskers, former smashmouth behemoths, staggering in like old battered boxers with eyes swollen and trunks pulled too high, trying to reclaim their belts.
Brady Hoke has done some good things at Michigan, such as win every single home game and beat Akron. He’s also adept at loading up his recruiting basket as if shopping at Costco, and has beaten every rival — Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Connecticut — at least once. He also has lost every big road game, but it’s way too soon for giddy Hoke-a-maniacs to become angry Hoke-aholics. Stockpiling the right players and implementing a system takes time. Just ask Urban Meyer. (No, don’t ask Urban Meyer).
Hoke will be fine as soon as he gets his players to buy into old-school concepts such as tackling, blocking and not losing to Michigan State. Devin Gardner spent last Saturday crumpled into a ball because Michigan’s strategy against the nation’s best defense apparently included “stepping gingerly out of the way” and “twisting helmets as if trying to open a pickle jar.” Taylor Lewan apologized for that, because euphemistically, no one came close to opening the jar.
Both proud programs have scraped the bottom recently. Nebraska embarrassingly lost to Minnesota, then needed a Hail Mary to beat winless Northwestern and race off the field with high-pitched squeals. Michigan embarrassingly needed a backhoe to scoop up pieces of its offensive line in East Lansing and load them into the cargo hold of the team bus.
The Cornhuskers have their own issues with Bo Pelini, who has defiled the Bo name with his meek defense. It can’t be fun being a Pelini these days, as Nebraska’s famed Blackshirts defense has been downgraded to BlackandBlueshirts.
Michigan can do Michigan State yet another favor by winning Saturday — almost as big a favor as declining to block last week. A Nebraska loss would just about wrap up the division and keep Michigan State on track for a much-anticipated 27-3 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. There’s a lot at stake in this old-fashioned grudge match, and may the least-battered team win.
Pick: Michigan 38-24
■ Penn State at Minnesota: The Big Ten is investigating claims the Gophers are still in division contention with three straight victories. If true, that Minnesota-Michigan State finale actually might be more than a title-game tuneup. Minnesota 27-20
BYU at Wisconsin: There’s no truth to the rumor this rare November nonconference tilt is a trial run to see if BYU is worthy of joining the Big Ten. Living on past glory that’s now rarely attained? Oh, BYU is worthy. Wisconsin 31-13
LSU at Alabama: Nick Saban is so bored winning national titles at Alabama, reports surfaced of his possible interest in the Texas job. It’d be too bad if he left because these Saban-Les Miles matchups are classics. The quirky Miles is known for occasionally chewing stadium grass. The maniacal Saban is known for occasionally chewing (rhymes with grass). Alabama 24-9