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Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: Wolverines, 'Cats all about 'D'

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

No one expected this, not now, not with these teams. And yet here they come, Michigan and Northwestern, two behemoths about to slug it out in a vicious battle to see who can punt the fewest times.

This wasn’t supposed to be the latest Game of the Century, and it really isn’t unless you define “century” as “Oct. 10.” But since Northwestern inexplicably decided to start 5-0 and get ranked 13th, and Michigan declined to remain downtrodden, hired Jim Harbaugh, and is 4-1 and ranked 18th, here it is.

If you rated the Big Ten’s biggest games before the season, you’d probably go in this order: Michigan State-Ohio State, Michigan State-Penn State, Michigan State-Purdue, Ohio State-Indiana, Purdue-Indiana (it’s for the Old Oaken Bucket!), Michigan State-Michigan, and perhaps Ohio State-Michigan.

But, Michigan and Northwestern adopted a clever strategy, which you’d expect from the only two Big Ten schools with actual functioning libraries. They dropped the silly concept of “piling up points” and tried something entirely different. They opted to play football the way it used to be played, before the Oregons and TCUs and Baylors turned a great game into a sped-up version of elementary-school recess, with screaming kids running in random directions.

This is about defense, an antiquated concept banned in most areas of the country. When Michigan and Northwestern line up for the conference’s first showdown, it should be a slobber-knocker, or as the scholarly Wildcats call it, a mucus-loosener.

And at the risk of having rabid Spartans and rabid-er Buckeyes send me emails stuffed with capital letters, !!!!!!s, and extremely bad words, dare I say the winner of this game can start to whisper the P-word? No, not Punt. P-p-p-playoff? Hey, stranger things have happened — I mean, Utah is a top-five team, Texas is a bottom-five team and Eastern Michigan isn’t winless.

It seems Urban Meyer and No. 1 Ohio State are too busy spinning the quarterback wheel to bother with defense anymore. And No. 4 Michigan State no longer has crazed coordinator Pat Narduzzi charging to the field to yell at everyone, and without ’Duzzi, the defense appears dizzy.

Obviously, Michigan can’t look ahead to the “Oct. 17 Game of the Century” against Michigan State, although to be fair, Michigan State has been looking ahead since approximately Jan. 3. As you know, the Spartans are ranked fourth despite a hideous 0-5 record (against the spread). They are 5-0 (against the opponent), if you’re into all that advanced metric stuff.

If you enjoy such football innovations as “completed passes” or “40-yard runs,” don’t go to the Big House on Saturday. It won’t be pretty, which means it’ll be beautiful to Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald. Harbaugh pulled a fast one, allegedly coming to Ann Arbor to whisper in quarterbacks’ ears and order them to produce touchdowns. Instead, he hired a young coordinator named D.J. “Just D” Durkin, and suddenly Michigan’s scoring defense is second in the country, one slot below, ahem, Northwestern.

If you were alive in 2000, you might remember Northwestern’s classic 54-51 victory over Michigan, one of the early warning signs defenses were tragically endangered. These days, 54-51 is the average halftime score of a TCU game. Everyone runs these exhausting spread offenses with little regard for the emotional well-being of linebackers, scoreboard operators and the poor mascots forced to do pushups after every touchdown.

Detroit News college picks: Week 6

Many people suggest the lowest point in Michigan football history was when the Wolverines went 3-9 in Rich Rodriguez’s first season, and everyone in the program was bickering like blue-haired ladies at Wal-Mart. In reality, the lowest point came two years later, when Michigan beat Illinois, 67-65, in triple overtime and recorded its lone tackle of the afternoon on the final play.

Now the Wolverines have posted back-to-back shutouts, and if you’ve ever been on a college campus, it’s hard to get shut out on consecutive weekends. They allow a mere 7.6 points per game, a notable upgrade over 7.6 points per possession in recent years.

You know things have gone retro when Northwestern is making noise again, and it’s not the standard, “Ow! OUCH!” The Wildcats were the original sinners, crashing the Big Ten’s power structure in the mid-90s, when they transformed from Purple Pipsqueaks into Purple Nuisances. I still question whether they’re totally committed to the whole nasty, gnarly brand of football when they start a freshman quarterback named Clayton Thorson (Howell III). Friendly advice to Fitzgerald: Recruit someone named Bronco.

It’s important not to confuse great defense with awful offense, easy to do in a conference where quarterbacks have been replaced by game-managers in a controversial cost-cutting move. Last year when Michigan beat Northwestern, 10-9, the contest was stopped several times so fans could be treated for eye-bleeding. Historically, the Wolverines beat the Wildcats in especially cruel ways. It could be in triple overtime like two years ago, or on a last-second 53-yard pass that led to overtime three years ago. This season, I suspect Michigan will win on an overtime safety.

As the old football adage goes, offense sells tickets, popcorn and those delicious cinnamon-roasted almonds, but defense wins the occasional lightly regarded championship. I’m not saying the winner of this game will go on to win it all. I’m saying the winner will be decided in a bizarre, never-before-seen manner, like by batting the ball out of the end zone or something.

Pick: Michigan 20-9

The picks

Michigan State at Rutgers: Mark “D” ’Antonio is still wearily trying to explain Michigan State’s spotty 5-0 start. Somehow the Spartans keep winning and dropping in the polls, and it doesn’t get any easier this week. If they don’t beat the scandal-ridden Scarlet-Faced Knights by multiple touchdowns, questions will stir anew. Hate to say it, but the Spartans face the very real possibility of being 12-0 and ranked 23rd. Michigan State 34-20

Maryland at Ohio State: Urban Meyer is on edge after Ohio State surrendered 27 points and barely beat Indiana. This should be a nice boost for the Buckeyes’ defense, because it’s almost impossible to turtle against the shelled Terrapins. Ohio State 45-8

Wisconsin at Nebraska: The 2-3 Cornhuskers have lost in every way imaginable under new coach Mike “No Life of” Riley. Frankly, Nebraska needs to get back to the fundamentals and lose in an old-fashioned, dignified way, like by fumbling at the goal line. Wisconsin 16-13

Illinois at Iowa: The Hawkeyes are another unfathomable contender that made the unpopular choice to play defense instead of offense. This might be the worst 5-0 team in the country except these teams are also unbeaten: Memphis, Navy, Toledo, Houston, Temple, Michigan State and Northwestern. Iowa 27-10