Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: Michigan must go forward into the past

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

This is why Jim Harbaugh was paid handsomely to come here, to mercilessly pound the Marylands and Minnesotas and Rutgerses, to put Michigan back on the college football and European maps, and to spoil championships for other teams.

OK, there were other reasons too, like that whole winning-your-own-championship deal, but that’s on hold at the moment, rescheduled for next season. In the meantime, you can see Harbaugh’s plan forming, block by block, third-down draw by third-down draw, short pass to gigantic tight end by short pass to gigantic tight end.

Here it is: To go forward, Michigan has to go backward. It’s back to Bo Ball, back to a simpler time when a team wasn’t judged by the spiral of its fancy passes, but by the grunt of its wide-waisted linemen.

That’s why Saturday is the perfect time for Michigan to face No. 5 Wisconsin, and by “perfect time,” I mean “worst time ever.” The Badgers (10-0) already have clinched the Big Ten West Division through 2023 and boast the No. 1 defense in the country. But they still need to beat the Wolverines (8-2) to have any shot at losing 38-0 in the playoff.

Wisconsin keeps doing what Michigan is determined to do again, and does it as gluttonously effective as anyone.

The Badgers stuff themselves with platters of meats and cakes, gobble ample servings of Illinois and Utah State, and they don’t apologize for making bodily noises.

More: Niyo: Michigan’s heavy burden has extra weight vs. Wisconsin

They may change coaches, but they’re all derivatives of Barry Alvarez, including whoever’s coaching them right now. They may change from one under-talented quarterback to another (hey, how’d Russell Wilson slip in there?), and they may change the names on the backs of their 465-pound offensive linemen. But they still do what they’ve done for 25 years – hand the ball to a bruising runner and push him downhill.

This year’s Montee-Ball-Ron-Dayne-Melvin-Gordon-James-White clone is freshman Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for 1,525 yards, nearly topping the total Ohio State piled up in the first half against Michigan State last week. It’s a basic philosophy: Each time you run the ball is a time you don’t let your quarterback wreck your program by throwing an interception.

It’s the philosophy long ago practiced by Bo Schembechler, but in recent years shunned by the college football elite. You might catch an Old Blue whisper wistfully about it at a wine-tasting event and everyone will nod, and someone might dab their eyes with a tissue.

But if Harbaugh is here because Bo was here, well, he might as well bring back slobber-knockering. The Wolverines lost twice this season because they were under the mistaken impression they could throw. So Harbaugh elevated young Brandon Peters and ordered him to hand off, and for the first time in decades, the Wolverines are running as if every opponent is 1970s-era Indiana.

More: Detroit News college football picks: Week 12

The problem is, almost every opponent has been 1970s-era Indiana for both Michigan and Wisconsin. The Badgers have quite the little racket going in the unbalanced Big Ten, feasting on weaklings with all the good teams inexplicably in the East. When your chief challenger many years is Northwestern, you realize that paper bag of cash you slipped to commissioner Jim Delany was worth it.

Whether Wisconsin is legitimately great or not is beside the point. Michigan is adept at hammering rank opponents, but hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2006. Since Harbaugh took over three years ago, you can argue Michigan’s most-satisfying victory was Iowa’s 55-24 thumping of Ohio State.

I remember when the Wolverines used to go to Madison desperately trying to avoid a lactose-induced tummy upset, instead of trying to pull one off. But if Harbaugh is intent on revisiting nostalgia, now isn’t a bad time to try it.

Throwback tendencies regularly resurface in college football. Look at No. 1 Alabama, which only passes the ball when Nick Saban isn’t paying attention. Even Brady Hoke is back, making his debut this week as Tennessee’s interim coach. I heard that Hoke, who would never utter the full name of Michigan’s rival, is eagerly anticipating Tennessee’s game Saturday against “Louisiana.”

For some reason, Michigan State got into the throwback mood too with its tidy 48-3 loss to the Buckeyes. It’s often been said – and scientifically proven – the Spartans are obsessed with everything Michigan does, but getting pummeled by Ohio State took it a bit too far. There was a benefit, though, allowing Michigan State fans to flip early to a recording of their victory over Michigan, winding and rewinding while cheering each interception as if seeing it through tears of joy for the first time.

The Ohio State game was pretty much over in the first quarter, although some might suggest it was over before it began, when the clouds broke and the sun appeared in Columbus. Now, now, calm down. No one is downgrading the Spartans for winning so many bad-weather games they should be called Team Cumulus. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

By my math, Michigan State has posted approximately 37 signature road victories since Michigan’s last one.

If that’s to change under Harbaugh, this is a prime place to start. The Wolverines are trying to look like the bulky Badgers, which is sort of gross, but necessary. Using the pound-for-pound formula, Michigan is fattening up and hoping to get better, and preparing for the wurst.

Pick: Wisconsin 20-16

Other games

Maryland at Michigan State: Now that they’ve gotten those pesky Big Ten title hopes out of the way, the Spartans can return to their role of being young and disrespected. Contrary to unsubstantiated rumors, Michigan State didn’t hold its end-of-season banquet after the Ohio State game, and plans to take its final two opponents very seriously, whoever they are. Pick: Michigan State 37-17

Illinois at Ohio State: The Illini can put the Spartans back in the conference race by shocking the Buckeyes hahahahaha I can’t even finish the sentence. Illinois is a 40-point underdog, and the only way the Buckeyes don’t cover that number is if they spend the second half watching Michigan tape on their computer tablets. It’s also Senior Day, which means J.T. Barrett has just three years of eligibility remaining. Pick: Ohio State 45-10

Oklahoma at Kansas: I’m only picking this game because I’m mildly deranged. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is the best player in college football, while 1-9 Kansas is the worst Power Five conference team in recent history. Come on, who doesn’t enjoy a juicy mismatch?! Pick: Oklahoma 63-18