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Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: Border wars could define UM, MSU

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Wilton Speight

By midnight Saturday, we should know better whether Michigan State is officially done stinking. A few hours before that, we should know better whether Michigan is actually pretty good, or just pretty good at faking it.

I wish I could give you definitive answers now, before you spend eight hours on your couch, using pretzel rods to scoop bean dip from between the cushions. I am sort of paid for my college football analysis (not really), but this is a fuzzy one, even for me.

Michigan opens the festivities in West Lafayette, Ind., a quaint place where the city’s economic health is largely dependent on the seasonal Steak ‘n Shake industry. The Wolverines are 3-0 with mundane victories over foes from weaker conferences such as the SEC, and have shown a child-like fascination with repeatedly kicking the ball through the uprights. But now they have to face revitalized Purdue (2-1), and let’s just say business is booming at the Boiler-Up Motel. It’s expected to be the Boilermakers’ first home sellout in nearly a decade, and there are rumors someone might even try to scalp a ticket or two, although authorities are prepared.

Let’s face it, this is all fairly new for Purdue, which makes the game even more dangerous for Michigan. There’s also the nasty little issue of the Wolverines’ red-zzzzzzzzzzone offense, which puts extra pressure on their red-hot defense. Jim Harbaugh has tried very hard to hide his frustration when asked about his touchdown-averse attack, lately uttering responses shorter than one-fourth of a syllable, a Big Ten record.

More: Detroit News college football picks: Week 4

Purdue has beaten Michigan only twice in the past 17 years * (* both victories against the Coach Whose Name Shall Not Be Uttered). But now the Boilermakers have a snazzy new coach making quite a name for himself, Jeff Something, and a prolific quarterback in David Blough. If you slightly mispronounce Blough’s last name, you can pretty much sum up Purdue’s program since Drew Brees blew out of town.

Wolverines-Boilermakers is merely the opener in a huge one-day clash between the neighboring states of Michigan and Indiana, a friendly, respectful border rivalry. It doesn’t quite garner the attention of the Michigan-Ohio spat, largely because Indiana people are proud, simple folk, while Ohio people are dolts with horrific behavioral issues.

Mark Dantonio

The night game should be the real classic, as Michigan State-Notre Dame meet again to determine who gets to go 4-8 and who gets to go 3-9. Hey, wait, that’s not it at all. The Spartans (2-0) and Fighting Irish (2-1) meet to determine who’s on the correct path to redemption, and who gets to go 3-9.

The Spartans have beaten two MAC teams, which is considered a notable accomplishment only because they’re in this awkward rehabilitation stage, where every halting, positive step is celebrated. Now they face Notre Dame, which also is trying to quit stinking, and also has pounded a couple of sorry foes to polite applause.

When the Spartans and Irish step into the bright lights Saturday night, furiously rubbing their eyes, it’ll be the revival of Michigan State’s second-greatest rivalry, and Notre Dame’s 37th-greatest rivalry. A year ago, Michigan State rolled to a 36-28 victory, giving little indication it was secretly plotting to go 1-9 the rest of the way. At least you could see signs of Notre Dame’s impending 4-8 doom, written in the angry red veins and bulging eyes of Brian Kelly’ face.

Kelly is in his eighth season there, and some suggest his final season there, based on the Irish’s 20 losses the past four years and his occasional snotty demeanor. Kelly also has a nagging penchant for blaming everything else — his assistants, his quarterbacks, his fund-raising schedule, his binding waistband on his too-tight coaching pants. He brought in new coordinators and a quarterback with the quintessential Notre Dame name, Brandon Wimbush, who does a nice job running in the general direction of the goal line.

There’s a decent chance Notre Dame is much improved, based on its narrow 20-19 home loss to Georgia. There’s also a decent chance Michigan State is much improved, based on its return to the football basics — blocking, tackling, not bickering, actually reading the playbook.

Mark Dantonio isn’t facing nearly as much heat as Kelly, nor should he, but just to be safe, he might consider avoiding the 1-9 strategy again.

When these teams aren’t busy trying to restore their reputations, they usually engage in delightful competition. They play for something called the Megaphone Trophy, which is fitting given that the winner will have the honor of loudly announcing they’re done being done.

Pick: Notre Dame 34-23

The picks

Michigan at Purdue: Some dopes — not me this time! — think Michigan’s offensive woes are totally because of quarterback Wilton Speight. I actually blame young kicker Quinn Nordin, who has emerged as the early favorite to be Michigan’s September Heisman candidate. If he wasn’t so good, the Wolverines wouldn’t be so eager to stop scoring touchdowns. Pick: Michigan 12, Nordin 11, Purdue 14. (Do your own math.)

Penn State at Iowa: The Nittany Lions are a hollow 3-0, essentially having beaten three variations of Akron. And they wouldn’t be the first undefeated team to march into Iowa for a night game, incur a quarterback injury, commit a series of gaffes and suffer a crushing one-point loss that alters the course of an entire season. Pick: Penn State 27-24

Rutgers at Nebraska: Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley has done amazing things in his third season there. His team almost wiped out a 42-14 halftime deficit at Oregon. His team almost lost to Arkansas State at home. His team did lose to Northern Illinois at home. But nobody — and I mean not even Faux Bo Pelini — loses at home to Rutgers. Pick: Nebraska 38-17

TCU at Oklahoma State: For reasons that remain unclear, the state of Oklahoma has become college football’s hottest hotbed, with the Cowboys and Sooners ranked in the top six. This is unseemly, like when the Mississippis got all dressed up a few years ago and spilled homemade hooch on the penthouse carpet. Okie State quarterback Mason Rudolph is a leading Heisman candidate (non-kicker division). Pick: Oklahoma State 41-20