Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Saturday's showdown between the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Detroit News
Frankly, this might not be the greatest idea. For years and years, Michigan and Michigan State rolled around in the backyard, outside the national glare, gouging eyes and exchanging dimwitted insults. No one else really cared to watch, and there certainly wasn’t much reason to turn the lights on.
But because college football exists primarily for TV money and Dr. Pepper commercials featuring that creepy goof Larry, the rivalry will be illuminated to the world Saturday in Michigan Stadium, the series’ first night game. That means everything will be exposed, and I’m not sure everyone’s ready to see it.
It means that around 11 p.m. Saturday, sleepy Old Blues will be standing on their front porches in their blue-and-yellow stocking caps, shaking a fist at the lights while trying to quiet their yapping little dogs. It means Michigan’s top-ranked defense will be on display, and so will its oddly rudimentary offense. It means ABC will air a lengthy documentary on the muffed punt the Spartans cleverly turned into a shocking victory two years ago, including a tearful interview with the bespectacled Michigan fan whose hands remain permanently stuck to his head.
It also means Michigan State’s recovery from a 3-9 disaster will be breathlessly recounted. At 3-1, the Spartans already have matched their win total from last season, so I assume everything else now is gravy (underrated food group, by the way).
The Wolverines are 4-0 and doing a fine job pretending they didn’t graduate virtually their entire starting lineup. Partly because they’re coached by Jim “Bo” Harbaugh, they remain very touted. And partly because Michigan State is coached by Mark “Mark” Dantonio — 7-3 against Michigan — the Spartans remain very not worried.
Beyond that, we have little clue if either team is legitimately really good. The only two things we know for sure during the long buildup Saturday to the 7:30 p.m. kickoff: Michigan fans will be getting extremely nervous, and Michigan State fans will be getting extremely drunk.
OK, that’s an unfair stereotype. Michigan fans also will be engaged in spirited battles of Martini Pong, while asking wobbly people to stop relieving themselves in their herb gardens. I also suspect there will be a heavy haze over Ann Arbor and the sweet smell of fresh skunk, if you know what I mean.
See, there’s a reason both schools have politely declined to play this game at night, until the Big Ten and ABC finally told them to grow up and act like you can get along. With the towns separated by a mere 60 miles of corn mazes and deer roadkill, it’s easy for anyone to show up, like uninvited guests sticking their heads in your fridge.
You hope people on both sides behave themselves and avoid sensitive topics such as health care, immigration or whether there was one second left on that stupid clock 16 years ago. Keep your emotions in check, because I’m not sure either side has a ton to brag about at the moment. This wasn’t much of a rivalry for about 40 years, when the Wolverines dominated. Then it wasn’t much of a rivalry the past decade, when the Spartans inexplicably and viciously took over.
To be honest, I’ve always felt the Big Brother-Little Brother angle was overblown. The Wolverines and Spartans actually are stepbrothers, and they play not for the right to lift the hideous Paul Bunyan Trophy, but for the right to sleep in the top bunk. As stepbrothers, they come from different backgrounds but live in close quarters, and when they wrestle, it’s always a bit nastier.
The truth is, these teams might be more alike than they realize. Both have relatively new mobile quarterbacks — Brian Lewerke and John O’Korn (also known as “Not Wilton Speight” by irritable Michigan folks). Spartan fans obsess about slights, real or imagined, like the high school kid who’s not as popular as he thinks he should be. Wolverine fans obsess about momentous victories, even though most happened before they were born.
On Saturday, Michigan will celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1997, the year it won the national championship. Or as the Spartans call it, “the year Nebraska won the national championship.” But I’m here to say, it’s the differences that can bring the sides closer together.
Heck, even the coaches share some personality traits. Last weekend before a Michigan swim meet, Harbaugh jumped into the pool with all his clothes on. Last weekend after beating Iowa, Dantonio cracked a smile with all his clothes on, according to unverified reports.
Harbaugh and Dantonio haven’t verbally sparred in any way, which is kind of disappointing. Maybe Dantonio realizes his new stepbrother is a tad crazy, and he’s worried if he ticks him off while sharing a bathroom, Harbaugh will do something to his toothbrush. Maybe Harbaugh realizes his stepbrother has bigger muscles than he thought, and he’d better be careful.
Dantonio keeps discovering new and crueler ways to torture Michigan. Three years ago, he ran up the score and acted wildly offended the Wolverines tried to push a stake into the Spartan Stadium turf, a failed motivational attempt witnessed by almost nobody. Two years ago, with the Wolverines 10 seconds from victory, Dantonio maliciously ordered his players to scoop up a fumbled punt attempt and run really fast into the end zone.
According to my sources, the Wolverines dutifully worked on punt formations all week, even adding plays designed for blockers to actually block. I understand the Spartans also have been practicing punt formations, which is good, because they’ll probably need them.
Pick: Michigan 20-9
Penn State at Northwestern: Before the game, Saquon Barkley will be awarded the September Heisman, and in an emotional speech he’ll thank his family, his teammates, the Iowa defense and the lame schedule the Nittany Lions have faced so far. Northwestern wasn’t supposed to be lame, but we’re still waiting to see evidence to the contrary. Pick: Penn State 31-20
Wisconsin at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers already have fired their AD, and you can bet real estate agents soon will be hounding coach Mike Riley. The Badgers are 4-0 but haven’t yet received the stamp of championship legitimacy. They won’t get the stamp here, just the win. Pick: Wisconsin 34-27
Maryland at Ohio State: The Terrapins would be very dangerous if they weren’t on their third-string quarterback because of injuries. Since losing to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes have proven they can dominate anybody, as long as “anybody” is defined as “Army, UNLV or Rutgers.” Add Maryland to the list. Pick: Ohio State 45-10