Wojo: Pressure is all on the Wolverines to solve the Spartans riddle

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is going for his second win against Michigan State as the Wolverines' head coach.

If you look at talent and health and motivation, Michigan should win this game. Jim Harbaugh has his quarterback, his defense, perhaps even his offensive line. The Spartans’ offense is half in flux and half in the infirmary.

The Wolverines have a lot of tangible edges and all the pressure, no questions, no excuses. They’re 6-1, ranked sixth and harboring playoff ambitions. They’re so sick of losing to the Spartans in uniquely painful ways, they can’t fully verbalize it for fear of saying something wrong. They’re physically equipped to control this game, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, are they emotionally equipped to handle it?

If this wasn’t in East Lansing, with Mark Dantonio on the other sideline, you’d figure Michigan would win in routine fashion, as a seven-point favorite. But Dantonio has won eight of the past 10, despite being the underdog for the fourth straight time. Incredibly, he’s 10-0 against the spread in that span, suggesting the Wolverines are generally overrated or the Spartans are generally overlooked, or both.

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Dantonio is 2-1 against Harbaugh, with both victories in Ann Arbor achieved in unusual fashion. There was the muffed punt on the final play of a 27-23 victory three years ago. There was the sloppy downpour last season, when Michigan committed five turnovers and Michigan State none.

You can argue the Wolverines will have the edge in virtually every position group Saturday in Spartan Stadium. They have the nation’s top-ranked defense (according to ESPN) and a mobile quarterback in Shea Patterson, the type of dynamic player that often beats them. The Spartans’ offensive line has been jumbled by injuries and the receiving corps has been decimated, although Felton Davis can change a game by himself. And Brian Lewerke has big-play capability, despite his struggles.

The hurdle for Michigan is a mental one, which is why no one would ever, ever dismiss Michigan State’s chances. Dantonio burns to win this game, taking it personally since his days as an assistant there. Harbaugh has to burn now, with his 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State, with each of his four seasons showing promise and then disappointment. He chafes at suggestions the Wolverines don’t treat the rivalry as seriously as the Spartans do.

Asked if there’s extra motivation, Harbaugh responded through clenched teeth: “Yes. In-state rival. Big Ten opponent. It always has, it is, always will be.”

'Step out and take a risk'

For years, you felt Michigan had to convince itself of that, ever since Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” comment in 2007. It was considered a big game, but not Ohio State-type big. At the time, it was understandable — the Wolverines had won six straight in the rivalry. Now, based on reputation and repercussions, Michigan State is every bit the nemesis as Ohio State, and in some ways, bigger.

The Wolverines should need no more convincing, especially after the Spartans (4-2) revived their season with a 21-17 stunner at Penn State, one week after a home loss to Northwestern. The bounce-back lifted Michigan State from a massive underdog to a moderate underdog. And always, a comfortable underdog.

“Last week we brought the chip back and that's just something you can never lose, same thing with the underdog thing and how they think of us,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “You know, people out in the media or whatever think of us maybe a little different than them, and that's fine with us.”

Harbaugh ruefully noted the rivalry could “use a break from the cliches that have been plowed so thoroughly on both sides,” and I suppose he’s right. There was virtually no trash talk this week, outside of the standard office-cubicle fan spats.

Harbaugh isn’t biting and Dantonio isn’t fishing. Each says he respects the other, respects the rivalry. Dantonio says the sportsmanship has elevated since Harbaugh arrived. Harbaugh says the Spartans are “very well-coached.”

The desperation is squarely on the Wolverines’ side, and that sometimes causes them to play tight. It allows the Spartans to play loose, with Dantonio plucking trick plays and timely gambles.

“I think at times as a football coach, you need to step out and take a risk,” Dantonio said. “You can't all put it on your players and give them all the risk and say he didn't tackle the guy, or they didn't make the first down. Sometimes as the head football coach, you have to step out there and say, hey, it's my decision and if it doesn't work, it's on me.”

'We'll be ready'

Dantonio took those risks as a two-touchdown underdog at Penn State, with a fake punt, a fake field goal, a halfback pass and then a heave to Davis for a touchdown with 19 seconds left. Michigan has been less inclined to take risks, although Harbaugh now has a quarterback he more readily trusts.

In last season’s 14-10 Michigan State victory, John O’Korn tossed three interceptions. Bad plays, sure, but it made no sense that Michigan kept throwing in the driving rain. The old trope in this rivalry is that the running game is the difference, and in that regard, the Wolverines have a significant advantage.

They’re 20th in the country averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and Karan Higdon leads them with 687 yards. Michigan State is 116th at 3.4 per carry, and Connor Heyward leads with 191. The Spartans’ dichotomy is even starker on defense — they own the top-ranked run defense but are 112th against the pass. Which brings us back to the transfer Patterson, who could be the piece the Wolverines have been missing.

Don’t ask me, or Harbaugh. Just ask the Spartans. Patterson has completed 68.6 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also running the read-option more, including an 81-yard jaunt in the stomping of Wisconsin.

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“Obviously they have a highly rated quarterback over there and I don't think they’ve had one the past couple years,” Bachie said. “There's big talk about him. Their offense is good. They’re talking highly of their O-line. We'll be ready for it.”

The Wolverines sound ready too, although we’ve heard that before. They’ve heard a lot of things for a while, like the program’s 0-17 record since 2006 against ranked teams on the road.

“It is getting old, we’re just trying to win this game and shush everybody up,” defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall said. “I’m tired of everybody talking about Michigan not being where we were before. I feel like we haven’t proven it all the way, but we’ve shown people Michigan is on the way up.”

On the way up? Sure. Talented and determined? Sure. As maniacally driven and prepared as the Spartans? I suspect the Wolverines will be, or should be, but we have to see it. Michigan State will be ready for anything and everything. Michigan has no excuse not to match it, and possesses enormous incentive to top it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski