Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Sparty nightmare unfolds

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

This is the nightmare the Spartans always feared but never spoke of, worse than the Braylon Edwards nightmare, or the John L. Smith nightmare, or the nightmare where you wake up in a cold sweat thinking you went to work dressed like Johnny Spirit.

This is the dream scenario Wolverine fans always envisioned, and kept believing despite getting rudely awakened year after year. Michigan State couldn’t continue to defy its history and nature with its astonishing streak of winning games in the final 10 seconds, developing NFL talent and rubbing its rival’s upturned noses in it, right? And Michigan couldn’t continue its astonishing streak of willful indifference to the acts of blocking, tackling and grunting with purpose, right?

Well here it is, the development many foresaw the moment Jim Harbaugh arrived with crazy eyes and gallons of whole milk and immediately made it clear he planned to dominate Twitter. He also attacked recruiting with all sorts of satellite camps, such as the one last weekend at Rutgers, where Michigan coaches and players conducted a variety of fun, informative drills for the youngsters who attended, including those who played for the home team.

Now the Wolverines are 6-0 and ranked fourth, and have replaced the Spartans in national-championship chatter. Michigan State is 2-3 and has accomplished only one major goal — avoiding Alabama in the postseason. It also beat Notre Dame, but I clearly said “major goal.”

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How has everything flipped so suddenly, like a muffed punt in the night? More important, will it stay flipped, and will the Spartans somberly long for the days when national media bothered to butcher Mick DeeAntonio’s name?

Apparently, according to a little-known statute, Michigan and Michigan State are not permitted to be good at the same time. I did the research and it has something to do with the state’s farming history, ensuring at least one set of apathetic fans was available for the fall harvest. So the programs take turns, and the Wolverines are very excited to get theirs again after an eight-year wait. There’s even a chance they’ll conduct a successful satellite camp in East Lansing Oct. 29, but only if they find a way to stop Spartans triple-threat quarterback Damion O’Lewerke.

The shift became semi-official last Saturday, when Michigan State lost its third straight in embarrassing fashion. It was a bad look, described by local historians as John L’ish. Meanwhile, Michigan edged Rutgers 78-0 in a scrimmage that wasn’t nearly that close. Jabrill Peppers played both sides of the ball, scored approximately one to five touchdowns depending on which tape you view, took a few snaps as a Rutgers linebacker and cemented his Heisman candidacy. It was an impressive performance, described by local historians as Woodson’ish.

Success doesn’t surprise Michigan players

The Spartans were so shaken by what’s now called Blue Saturday, the staff began internal discussions about ramping up recruiting, and might consider targeting kids with as many as 2.5 stars. It’s doubly painful at the moment, because Western Michigan also has risen to 6-0 and is ranked 24th, and could end up in a big fancy bowl. In a touching gesture, Broncos coach P.J. Fleck reached out to DeeAntonio in this phone conversation, fabricated and secretly recorded as always:

Fleck: “Tough times, coach. You should do what we do — Row the Boat! Row row row! Oars in the water!”

D: “I put ‘ORs’ on our depth chart.”

Fleck: “Nah man, that’s not it. You gotta be decisive. Pick a quarterback! Pick a coordinator! Pick a slogan!”

D: “We have one — Back2Back.”

(Uncomfortable pause, crackling on phone line.)

Fleck: “Uh, you might want to update that. Something more dramatic, like Row the Boat!”

D (sighing): “Any suggestions?”

Fleck: “I got it buddy — Bail the Water! Bail bail bail!”

There’s no way Michigan State will bail this Saturday against Northwestern, and by “no way,” I mean “I have no idea.” The Spartans might not win many more games, but they certainly won’t bail Oct. 29th, when the Wolverines roll into town hoping not to have their season ruined for the eighth time in nine years.

Harbaugh has been preparing madly for this, loading up his defense, practicing punts, eating gigantic steaks at 50 percent off, and even scheduling an unprecedented three consecutive byes — Rutgers, Actual Bye, Illinois – before the long trek to East Lansing. Let’s be clear — nothing is official until that game is played, when we’ll see for sure whether two boats are rowing frantically in opposite directions.

The picks

Northwestern at Michigan State: This is an important game for the Spartans to lose to avoid bowl eligibility and dodge the Ford Field bowl. They haven’t dropped four in a row since 2006, late in the John (Multiple Ls) Smith reign. Northwestern also is 2-3, including a 22-21 loss to Western Michigan, so this should be a good way to measure how much water Michigan State’s little tugboat is taking on. Northwestern 22-21

Ohio State at Wisconsin: Four Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 10, which hasn’t happened since 1960. That’s impressive, a staggering 33 percent more than the SEC’s meager three representatives. The beefy Badgers only surrendered 14 points to the Wolverines (64 fewer than the Scarlet Knights) so their defense is pretty good. So is Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett, who somehow is ahead of Peppers in the Heisman race despite not making any tackles or returning a single punt for a touchdown. Ohio State 27-13

Nebraska at Indiana: The Cornhuskers are the Big Ten’s other top-10 team, but they are forewarned. Nobody marches into Bloomington anymore and marches out with nary a scrape. It only took 119 years (give or take), but the Hoosiers are starting to grasp the concept of defense. Nebraska 26-23

Alabama at Tennessee: The Crimson Tide has beaten the Volunteers nine straight times and won 18 straight overall, but is this another rivalry about to flip? Tennessee rates very, very high on the Cockroach Scale, an advanced football metric that calculates how hard it is to squash a team when it’s cornered and threatened. I suspect Nick Saban will bring his pointy-toed boots for this one. Alabama 38-21

Western Michigan at Akron: On the theme of reversing trends, remember when the Broncos went 1-11 in their first season under P.J. Fleck? He’s no P.J. Fluke with this turnaround, but his team had better be careful. Cracking the Top 25 doesn’t mean you get to stop rowing and start crowing. Western Michigan 42-37