Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Harbaugh, Wolverines still seeking cure for big-game blues

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — For approximately the 27th time in five years, Michigan is about to play its most important game ever ever ever ever under Jim Harbaugh, the definitive defining game of his tenure. Definitely.

The Wolverines travel to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania to participate in Penn State’s annual “White-Out,” an acclaimed event that celebrates the benefits of bleach, sponsored by Clorox. The fans wear such bright clean clothing under the lights, visitors have been known to get blinded by the white.

It can’t happen again to the Wolverines, although if it does, at least they still have the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st and 32nd most important games ever ever ever ever upcoming against Notre Dame, Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State. Michigan is 5-1 and can’t afford another Big Ten loss, unless it’s truly serious about extending its championship-less streak to 15 years.

Jim Harbaugh

Penn State is 6-0 and ranked No. 7, which means, if you do the math, a Michigan victory would count as a victory over a top-10 team, even though a Michigan victory would simultaneously downgrade Penn State to fraud status, per well-established rules. Harbaugh is 1-9 against top-10 teams, a statistic you can find scrawled on dormitory walls in every college town, and also used as a romantic aid by noted SEC honk Paul Finebaum.

But facts are facts, and Harbaugh is under scrutiny for a variety of legitimate reasons. You can blame his big-game record on inconsistent quarterbacking, or on coaching gaffes, or on that $%*&@ NFL referee who couldn’t tell the difference between a player’s face and his large heaving chest. Or you can dig deeper and blame Wisconsin for exposing everything.

Frankly, the Badgers have inflicted more pain on the state of Michigan than Aaron Rodgers or that %$&*#$ referee ever could. First, the Badgers pounded the Wolverines 35-14 and launched this whole narrative that Michigan secretly stinks. Then last week, the Badgers pummeled Michigan State 38-0 and confirmed the narrative that the Spartans truly stink. I could make some lame joke about Michigan State’s best offensive play coming on a fake punt — haha good one! — except that it’s true.

You think Harbaugh is feeling the heat with his fancy little 43-15 record and empty big-game playbook? Check the temperature on Mark Dantonio, who’s 4-3 now, 24-21 the past four seasons. The Spartans were outscored 72-10 on successive Saturdays by Ohio State and Wisconsin, a cumulative disparity Michigan might not even top when it plays the Buckeyes.

Nobody could see this trouble coming for the Spartans, and by “nobody” I mean “literally everybody.” It began when Dantonio evaluated Michigan State’s 7-6 record last season and its 185th-ranked offense (or thereabouts) and decided the appropriate action was to assign numbers to assistants and pull them out of a bucket, like Bingo. For the record, the new offensive coordinator won the job when the o-38 ball came up.

I’m not saying the winningest coach in Michigan State football history has been staggered by the backlash. I’m just saying I heard from flimsy sources that an unshaven Dantonio spent the bye week wandering the streets of East Lansing, muttering to strangers such random things as, “Jet sweep short side!” “Little Giants!” and “Third-and-10 third-and-10 again and again.”

It's unfortunate what the pressure can do to highly respected coaches under constant scrutiny from fans, alums, nosey NCAA dorks, smarmy sportswriters, etc. It’s not just Dantonio and Harbaugh. Lovie Smith coached in a Super Bowl with the Bears, and now wears a fake beard and stocking cap on the Illinois sideline to hide from critics.

In an attempt to learn more about the challenges, I sat down for an exclusive made-up interview with Dantonio, secretly recorded as always.

Me: “Hi.”

Dantonio: “Shut up dumba--.”

Well, that was a quickie. Dantonio was criticized for using that naughty word in response to a question about his naughty offense. Frankly I don’t think it’s a big deal. There are many naughtier words in college football, such as “portal,” “Saban” and “unbeaten Minnesota.”  

It’s a high-stakes game and hot-seat lists are updated hourly. It wasn’t that long ago Dantonio was 36-5 over a three-year period, before he inexplicably started losing games 38-0. No sport punishes or rewards big-game performances as religiously as this one, and coaches are highly compensated to deal with it.

Which brings us back to Harbaugh, who has a losing record against precisely one Big Ten team, but the wrong one. From a narrative standpoint, getting blasted by Ohio State 62-39 was a very bad strategy. Going 1-9 against top-10 teams also is unwise, although to be fair, Harbaugh is 9-11 against all ranked opponents.

So here we are again, with an up-and-down Michigan team that treats the football like a Hot Pocket straight out of the microwave. It’s perplexing, just like this Michigan-Penn State series. For no apparent reason, Harbaugh and James Franklin adopted a first-team-to-42 agreement — 42-7 for the Wolverines last season, 42-13 for the Nittany Lions before that, 49-10 for the Wolverines before that.

Harbaugh actually is 3-1 against Franklin, which is only relevant if it becomes 4-1. The season hangs in the balance, again. A week’s worth of sports-radio hollering hangs in the balance, again. The last time the Wolverines visited Happy Valley, they looked nervous. I won’t suggest how nervous, but let’s just say it was fortunate they weren’t the ones wearing white pants.

This game will be different in one sense — the teams won’t hit 42 points combined. For the heck of it, let’s kick the Harbaugh referendum can down the road again. Pick: Penn State 16-13

The picks

Wisconsin at Illinois: The Badgers are 6-0 with four shutouts but must be furious they let the Spartans hold Jonathan Taylor under 100 yards. There’s a chance the Badgers have a historically good defense, and also a chance we won’t know a thing until they face Ohio State. Illinois can’t stop the run and Wisconsin can’t stop running, so this game should have a running clock. Pick: Wisconsin 52-6

Purdue at Iowa: It’s a classic Iowa team, tough enough to muck it up, creative enough to kick field goals. The Hawkeyes scored a total of 15 points in losses to Michigan and Penn State, yet they’re 17-point favorites against Purdue. Is Vegas sniffing something, or smoking something? Pick: Iowa 27-18

Minnesota at Rutgers: The Gophers are 6-0 for the first time since 2003 and are being taken semi-seriously for the first time since 1949. Meanwhile, the depths of Rutgers’ awfulness must be updated weekly. In a 35-0 loss to Indiana, the Scarlet-Faced Knights finished with exactly 1 yard passing, a total even the Spartans are allowed to giggle at. Pick: Minnesota 45-10


Twitter: @bobwojnowski