Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Wolverines ready to plant their stake

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The national hype suggests that Michigan phenom Jabrill Peppers might be able to defeat Michigan State single-handedly.

What a nasty, dirty trick by the Spartans. They spent the past eight years tormenting their rivals every way imaginable, bragging about sibling status, cruelly running up scores and running back punts, barely bothering to set stuff on fire anymore.

The rivalry was extinguished and Michigan State fans basked in their new elite lifestyle, splurging on Starbucks and wearing sweaters cinched around their necks. Michigan fans were demoralized, reduced to mumbling incoherently about Bo’s record and the corned beef at Zingerman’s.

But whoa, look what happened when the Wolverines, led by Jim “Hardball’’ Harbaugh, returned, ready to take back the top bunk. The Spartans scattered, off to the pros, off the roster, off Twitter. Instead of taking its comeuppance like a (Rutgers) man, Michigan State inexplicably has assumed a non-competitive stance, hands strategically protecting the groin, like soccer players defending a free kick.

This is the moment Michigan fans always pretended was imminent, but still secretly fear isn’t real. This is the moment Michigan State fans always pretended would never happen, but secretly feared it would.

Michigan is 7-0 and ranked second in the country. Michigan State is 2-5 and ranked sixth in the state of Michigan, behind 7-1 Wayne State. The rivals clash Saturday, and Michigan is favored by anywhere from 21 to 78 points, depending on how loud and drunk the Michigan fan is as he jabs a chubby finger into the Michigan State fan’s chest.

Hey, the Spartans can’t say they weren’t warned. They’ve done some heavy, heavy trolling while winning seven of eight meetings, led by disrespect-addicted coach Mark “Still No D” Antonio. The Wolverines took their punishment without much resistance, even apologizing when they were mildly disrespectful.

Remember two years ago when Antonio angrily ordered up another touchdown to “put a stake” in Michigan during a 35-11 romp? Brady Hoke apologized — and surely offered to pay for any damages — after a Michigan player savagely desecrated Spartan Stadium by jabbing a small tent spike into the field before the game.

The Wolverines won’t be planting a solitary stake this year. Nuh-uh. They’re planning to put up a whole party tent, with maize and blue streamers, a face-painting booth and a livestock display.

The Spartans can’t believe this is happening after just reaching the national playoff, where they impressively held the Crimson Tide below 40. The Wolverines can’t fully grasp it either, wondering if this is some sort of trap and Antonio suddenly will start using the real playbook, the one with actual first-down passes, minus fake field goals with one second left in the half.

I’m not saying the Spartans are in a daze after starting 0-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1982. I’m just saying there are Michigan State fans staggering through the streets wearing stained Cotton Bowl T-shirts and “Make State Great Again” hats. I’m just saying Michigan State’s defense was assigned the task of protecting the Sparty statue this week, and at last report, Sparty was missing his helmet, half an arm, and obscenely, his entire codpiece. He also was caked in approximately 27 coats of blue paint.

Backup quarterback Brian Lewerke has started two games for the Spartans, completing 25 of 47 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown.

Now, let’s be fair. Michigan State did win its first matchup against Harbaugh, technically. The 27-23 victory came on the most famous final play in rivalry history that didn’t involve an extra second on the clock. Jalen Watts-Jackson’s touchdown off a muffed punt became the subject of a book, a movie (“Pride Comes Before the Punt”) and a Broadway musical. It also was the inspiration for the most-popular new class at Michigan State, “Time Management 101: How to Change Lives in 10 Seconds or Less.” (Guest lecturer: Spartan Bob).

After nearly a decade of utter dominance, maybe the Spartans got bored beating up on the Wolverines. Antonio even ran low on motivational slogans, and after five straight losses, he’s stuck with #Back2Back2Back2Back2Back.

But before anyone plants a stake where it doesn’t belong, it’s important to note the nature of this rivalry. Michigan hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2007. The lone Spartans loss in eight years was a 12-10 squeaker. But once again, Michigan has dusted off a spot for Paul Bunyan in its trophy case, right next to the Recruiting Championship crystal, the September Heisman and the stack of rusted Citrus Bowl trophies.

I understand so many people are predicting a blowout, Michigan fans are gobbling up tickets in the secondary market, ironic considering Michigan State is in the market for a secondary. The truth is, the Spartans remain dangerous because this is their Super Bowl, their Rose Bowl and their Quick Lane Bowl all wrapped up in one. In a game like this, you throw the record books out the window and hope you don’t hit someone on the sidewalk below. Unless, of course, you’re a Wolverines fan, in which case you clutch the record books from 1902 through 2007 and dab your eyes as you gently turn the pages.

OK, enough out of me. Antonio and Harbaugh spent the week nauseatingly gushing about each other, just in case mercy is needed Saturday. Antonio once famously declared “pride comes before the fall,” and the Spartans spent eight years hammering the point. If the Wolverines are serious about reversing the lesson, they’d better plant a stake unapologetically this time.

The pick: Michigan 38-7

The picks

Nebraska at Wisconsin: The Badgers are much, much better than 5-2, and the Cornhuskers are much, much worse than 7-0. This is Wisconsin’s fifth game against a top-10 team, while Nebraska has taken the smarter approach, recently popularized by Michigan, of playing only at home or only against battered rivals. Wisconsin 17-13

■Northwestern at Ohio State: The Buckeyes also pulled a dirty trick, losing to the Nittany Lions to dampen the season-ending showdown against the Wolverines. Ohio State still can get into the playoff but it can’t lose to Northwestern. No, really, it can’t. The Buckeyes haven’t lost to the Wildcats in Columbus in 45 years. Ohio State 45-17

■Clemson at Florida State: The unbeaten Tigers need a victory to stay in the hunt, and Deshaun Watson needs a big game to stay in the Heisman hunt. It’s a fascinating coaching matchup between Dabo and Jimbo, and after exhaustive research, I’ve determined the key player is the Seminole receiver named Bobo. Clemson 34-27

■Washington at Utah: Washington is one of nine unbeaten teams remaining, and the jockeying is about to get heated. A victory here keeps Washington on track for a playoff semifinal meeting with Michigan. Or Western Michigan. Washington 37-35