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Henning: Harbaugh cautious now, but wait until Saturday

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh likes what he sees on the Michigan sideline on Saturday against Illinois.

Ann Arbor – What the coach wants known is undeniable. At least if you play football at Michigan.

In fact, it’s so true, so irrefutable, Jim Harbaugh would not bend or adorn a single thought Saturday when asked about UM’s date against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium.

“We’re going to prepare for a big game with a championship mindset,” Harbaugh said after the Wolverines had peeled and deveined Illinois, 41-8, to further polish their unbeaten record and add fire to some mounting national title thoughts.

Harbaugh three times Saturday was steered into a question about Michigan State during a post-game conversation that, in Harbaugh style, saw him blend substance about Michigan’s latest victory with a kind of bemused disposition toward Michigan’s next victim, er, opponent, which in this case happens to be a troubled rival having its issues in 2016.

Each occasion MSU was mentioned, Harbaugh peered through his newly donned eyeglasses, like a college professor intent on students locking into their minds something permanent and immutable. Three times he said essentially the same thing, scarcely adding or subtracting an article or adverb.

“No question about it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a big championship game for our team.”

Nothing else? No lingering thoughts about last year’s MSU conquest, or as it’s known in the Ann Arbor region, The Steal of the Century, when the Spartans returned a fumbled punt snap for the winning touchdown.

“This will be a big game for us,” Harbaugh repeated, knowing very well it has the potential to be a big game, indeed – for his team. The Wolverines are playing so well and the Spartans so badly that Saturday’s fourth-quarter score could make any waning-moments drama unlikely.

Objectively, anyway, which isn’t the realm in which a head coach lives.

“A big game for our team,” Harbaugh said, with all but his right hand raised and his left on a Bible.

Wojo: Rolling Wolverines ready for the tough stuff

Harbaugh has extended his mindset to Michigan’s players, not the first time that’s happened. He has hermetically sealed his troops within a Maize and Blue cosmos he directs and in which he is free to mention the words “Michigan State” and “beat” and “crush” and “avenge” and, perhaps, “pulverize,” considering UM has been losing a bit too frequently in recent years to its perceived lesser neighbor in East Lansing.

But those will be his words. Said in private. They will not slip into the ether above East Lansing or into any media corridor that might find its way to the Spartans’ complex.

Michigan’s players understand. The script was presented and signed in blood ahead of their chances to talk about Michigan State following Saturday’s mashing of the Illini.

Wilton Speight, befitting a quarterback with latitude to change plays, came the closest to freelancing a thought about the Spartans.

He was asked about last year’s MSU miracle. How a game Wolverines fans believe should yet result in a felony charge against the Spartans would be processed by UM players 12 months later.

“I was so shocked,” said Speight, who didn’t play in the 2015 epic, but who is having a steadily excellent time in 2016 as the offense’s commander in chief. “I went home. I didn’t know what to say, or what to do.”

This season? Speight conceded the obvious. And for that, allow a quarterback high marks for reasonable candor.

“They haven’t been playing very well this year,” he said, acknowledging a questioner’s point about MSU’s falloff, “but this is a rivalry game.”

Wolverines have revenge over MSU on their minds

Taco Charlton, one of the men creating mayhem in Michigan’s defensive front, said it was essentially nuts for anyone to assume that just because Michigan has outpointed opponents 182-35 in its last four games – as MSU has lost five straight – is no reason for sane people familiar with football to expect a Wolverines walloping of the Spartans in this year’s reunion.

Charlton made mention of UM’s tussle against the Buckeyes three seasons ago. It seemed in most minds that the Wolverines might as well take on a team of United States Special Forces. It wasn’t expected to be pretty.

“But we gave it our best shot,” Charlton said, speaking of OSU’s crazy 42-41 victory, “and we did things no one thought we could do.”

Ah, that’s the attitude Harbaugh appreciates, all because the coach knows this is football, and football is a sport, and sports have a way of defying forecasts.

Wisdom seeped also from Jourdan Lewis following Saturday’s game. He is a marvelous football spokesman, with lightning thoughts and words that flow rhapsodically.

“All I’ve ever known is a great Michigan State team,” said Lewis, the senior cornerback from Detroit Cass Tech whose game is pure splendor. “All I remember is how dominating they’ve been over a long stretch.

“All we have to do is go up there and execute. I know they’ll put up a better fight. I know their fans are waiting for a turnaround, so why not start with us?”

Well then. We have agreement, after all, in the eon-old blood feud between Michigan and Michigan State.

Of course, rational thought of the brand offered by Lewis isn’t always applicable in a football game. Particularly when two teams appear as oddly matched as this year’s Wolverines and Spartans.

Throw in a little memory from last October, and, voila, you have not only a physical collision appearing sure to go Michigan’s way, but you’ve also got inspiration in something approaching equal measure.

It has to do with a certain final score: 27-23.

“Yeah, it kind of sucked,” said Tyrone Wheatley Jr., who snagged a pretty touchdown pass Saturday from Speight. “But you can’t really think about that. You’ve got to go out and win this year.”

Oh, do you ever, Wolverines. Just ask your fans. And just ask your coach. He has his thoughts, shared with all of you, in confidentiality, until Saturday.