Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: Rutgers riled for rematch with UM

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

If Michigan is to reclaim its rightful place among the elite programs that win national titles every half-century or so, it can’t overlook anyone. Not even Rutgers. Actually, it could overlook Rutgers, but Rutgers simply won’t allow it.

The Scarlet Knights are demanding to be noticed, and not just for piling up 116 yards in a 58-0 loss to the Buckeyes. They want a piece of the Wolverines. The Wolverines responded by graciously offering pieces of game-worn Jumpman clothing, but the Scarlet Knights declined.

So now it’s on, a rivalry that could blow up into one of the biggest in college football, if every other rivalry were inexplicably discontinued. I’ll be frank about this. Michigan has no desire to leave its leafy home and head to New Jersey for Saturday night’s showdown, with the possibility of a hurricane lurking in the area. No one likes blowhards, especially ones with New Jersey accents.

But the Big Ten calmly explained to the Wolverines — who are 5-0 in the Big House — they were contractually obligated to make a trip, perhaps even two. Jim Harbaugh finally agreed when it was explained to him the game in Piscataway was sort of like a satellite camp, without the same level of talent.

Now, am I being needlessly demeaning here? Yes I am. But this is my job, and I take it seriously (not really). I’m in charge of monitoring, mocking and stirring rivalries, and in some cases, creating them.

When the Big Ten agreed to rent the Scarlet Knights space in the conference basement — they pay their own electric and cable — it expected some benefit. Perhaps Rutgers could infiltrate and irritate the vast New York-New Jersey TV market, expanding the conference’s footprint. Or perhaps Rutgers could serve as a footprint itself, absorbing the occasional 58-0 stomping to enhance the Big Ten’s national standing.

Michigan is a hefty favorite, and the best way to avoid getting upset in these situations is to treat your opponent with respectful disdain. The best way for Rutgers to get fired up? Pretend it’s a brand-new rivalry!

That’s what happened two years ago when Rutgers beat Michigan, 26-24, in their first meeting, then celebrated by storming the field, tearing down the goalposts and ordering all bridges into New Jersey closed for no apparent reason. There were reports the Scarlet Knights even carried Gov. Chris Christie off the field, but that’s obviously false, besides being physically impossible.

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The Wolverines weren’t miffed at all, oh no, not at all. There were clear mathematical reasons they went for a two-point conversion with a four-touchdown lead in last season’s 49-16 victory.

And there are clear strategic reasons Harbaugh set up a satellite camp in New Jersey last summer, and it wasn’t to check out the state’s aromatic chemical plants.

You see, New Jersey has great high school football players. It’s just that historically, they don’t bother to play for Rutgers. Michigan landed two of the best — Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary — and would like more. Rutgers wants this nonsense to stop, so it hired former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash to do more than spread the Ashes.

One of Ash’s first bold acts was to align with Urban Meyer and set up a camp in New Jersey on the same day as Harbaugh’s, which is akin to bringing your big brother to a playground fight. The local folks were riled up, even to the point where a group called “Order of Bulls Blood” vandalized Paramus Catholic High to protest the appearance of the Wolverines. It was a heinous act of violence, and among the damage: Rutgers-emblazoned magnets were viciously littered around the school. (I’ve made up things before, but not this time).

Yep, it’s getting ugly. Rutgers earlier unveiled the slogan “Fence The Garden” in an effort to keep recruiters out of the “Garden State.” It was clever, much better than the first proposal, “Barb Wire The Swampland.”

The Scarlet Knights recently introduced another slogan — “Stripe the Birthplace!” — for Saturday night’s game, a reference to their status as the birthplace of college football. You might recall, Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, on Nov. 6, 1869, with Keith Jackson calling the game. Just to clear up any “Birthplace” confusion, school officials are asking fans to “stripe” the stadium with alternating sections of black and scarlet T-shirts, not to drive to Bethlehem, Pa., with cans of paint.

So this might not be your typical Big Ten mismatch. The Scarlet Knights are demanding full attention. The Wolverines are advised to give it to them.

Pick: Michigan 34-7

The picks

BYU at Michigan State: It would be cheap and unfair to call this BYU versus BYE, and I’m neither cheap nor unfair. The Spartans have hit a rough patch, losing two straight, but they still have plenty of incentive. Michigan State is at its best when overlooked, so there’s an excellent chance it’ll rebound and leap back into fourth place in the state rankings — just behind Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. Michigan State 34-32

Indiana at Ohio State: After beating the Spartans in overtime, the Hoosiers reportedly didn’t practice again until Wednesday, waiting for the hangovers to subside. That doesn’t bode well against Ohio State, which dropped 669 yards on Rutgers, and only stopped when bored officials started flashing the stadium lights to get people to go home. Ohio State 40-16

Maryland at Penn State: When D.J. Durkin took over at Maryland, no one expected a 4-0 start. Then they looked at the schedule — Howard, two Florida teams but not the good ones, Purdue — and realized it was no big deal if they started 4-0. Will it be a big deal if they beat the Nittany Lions? Uh, no. Maryland 27-23

Alabama at Arkansas: As Nick Saban knows, to win a national title you sometimes have to crawl through pig slop, and not just in recruiting. Bret Bielema was hired to fatten up the Hogs, and they’re certainly taking on their coach’s image. Alabama 34-17

Northern Illinois at Western Michigan: These are giddy times in Kalamazoo, where fans finally have something to do Saturday nights other than slip across the Indiana border to scavenge for cans and bottles, then try to collect deposits back home. Western Michigan is 5-0 and on the cusp of cracking the AP Top 25, and this is its chance to smite nemesis Northern Illinois. Broncos coach P.J. Fleck has become such a coveted commodity, school officials are contemplating the slogan “Fence The ’Zoo!” to keep suitors out. Western Michigan 45-31

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski