Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the UM-Maryland and MSU-Northwestern games this weekend. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
It’s nice that Jim Harbaugh proudly emulates his tough-minded mentor, Bo Schembechler. And it’s touching that Mark Dantonio proudly emulates his tough tattoo-minded mentor, Jim Tressel.
But according to some Michigan and Michigan State folks, and not just the whiny spoiled rotten types, that grind-it-out style has become a bit archaic. Based on social media, as well as my interaction with a guy in the frozen-pizza aisle, fans are increasingly insistent that the Wolverines and Spartans should try to score more touchdowns. They’re sick of suffering lower-intestinal distress while sitting through tense fourth quarters. They no longer derive joy from a perfectly executed 3-and-a-half-yard off-tackle run, or a 22-yard field goal.
College football has changed, and it now appears you can’t simply play defense and wait for the other team to fumble a punt. Michigan has the No. 1 defense in the country and is 66th in total offense. Michigan State has the No. 1 rushing defense in the country and is 90th in total offense.
While we respect both programs’ commitment to nostalgia, you have to admit it’s difficult to hang with the elite when you’re squeezing out first downs like they’re kidney stones. (Trust me on this one). I’m not saying Michigan and Michigan State run base offenses that date to 1869. I’m saying they run base offenses that date to 1969.
Am I suggesting Harbaugh and Dantonio undergo DNA transplants and reanimate as updated versions of Rich “No D” Roriguez and John “Ls” Smith? Of course not. NCAA bylaws prohibit experimental use of DNA.
I’m suggesting they need to incorporate more of the fancy run-pass-option gadgets that all the old-school powers are using, from Alabama to Ohio State to Central Florida. In an iPhone XXXL world, it sometimes seems as if Michigan and Michigan State are still using landlines.
Is it possible to win that way? Sure. It’s just very tedious, and requires you to have a burly, bruising offensive line, which takes times to develop, as we’ve witnessed. It also requires you to not fall behind 21-3 at Notre Dame. It also requires you not to peek even for a second at Testy Twitter from September through December.
Michigan has an exciting quarterback in Shea Patterson, just as Michigan State has one in Brian Lewerke. And yet the Spartans steadfastly refuse to score enough points to let weary fans head to the bars early, while the Wolverines occasionally fall into 17-0 holes at Northwestern.
Listen, this isn’t meant to unfairly malign. Both teams can win games doing it the old-old-old-fashioned way. But as the schedules toughen, we’ll need to see more from Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave “Pop” Warner, as well as Michigan’s Pep “Pep” Hamilton.
I know, I know, the philosophies come straight from the top, from Harbaugh and Dantonio. And that style of play does have a strong history of success, going back to smash-mouth Schembechler (minus the whole losing-bowl-games thing) and mealy-mouth Tressel (minus the whole lying-to-the-NCAA thing). Heck, in an attempt to keep up with the Spartans, Harbaugh even hired his own Warner, offensive line coach Ed “Pop” Warinner.
No one is demanding massive change, at least not yet. But if you don’t adjust, you’re liable to end up ordering a horrible off-tackle run on fourth-and-5 in the closing minutes of the biggest game of the season. Penn State’s James “Ben” Franklin was responsible for that ancient dandy in the Nittany Lions’ annual one-point loss to Ohio State.
The game can be humbling. On the same day Franklin made the worst play call in the history of college football, an official in the Michigan-Northwestern game called the worst holding penalty in the history of college football, as deemed by Harbaugh and approximately 5.9 million viewers. In a violent, unprovoked act, Wolverines running back Karan Higdon was grabbed, thrown to the ground, had his legs bound with duct tape, and then was penalized for not being able to get up.
The Wolverines overcame it to pull out a 20-17 victory, but the way they’re racking up penalties, they might consider contributing more generously to the National Referees Retirement Fund. There’s a theory that Michigan is hiding all its secret weapons for the brutal stretch ahead —Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers — but I’m not so sure, unless it’s planning to finally unveil a three-fullback backfield.
The Wolverines (4-1) had better be ready, because not every Big Ten team regularly collapses after the first quarter like Northwestern. This week’s opponent, Maryland (3-1), is less likely to turtle, and the Terrapins have proven to be a pesky group despite their odd refusal to complete passes. Granted, Michigan has outscored the Terps 122-13 the past three meetings, but if you take anything for granted, you’re just begging to get tackled behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-5.
It’s Homecoming in Ann Arbor, which means you’ll see lots of gray-haired (and blue-haired) alums wearing garish yellow pants adorned with blue Block Ms. There will be plenty of wrinkles in the stands. Wrinkles in the playbook? No guarantees. Pick: Michigan 34-13
■ Northwestern at Michigan State: In a dramatic strategic maneuver, Northwestern plans to jump out to a 17-0 deficit this week. Comfortable with such a big cushion, Dantonio will empty his bench in the second quarter and start reading magazines on the sideline. The Spartans had better be careful, because goofy things happen in this series. The Wildcats somehow ended up with more points on their last two visits to East Lansing, and Clayton “Thurston” Thorson III has a rich history of being the quarterback there since the mid-'90s. Pick: Michigan State 24-17
■ Indiana at Ohio State: While Harbaugh and Dantonio honor their predecessors, Urban Meyer continues to defile the legacy of the great Woody Hayes. Three yards and a cloud of dust? The Buckeyes insist on 37-yard chunks and a cloud of suspicion. With Dwayne Haskins, they zip the ball over the place, which seems completely unnecessary at times. Pick: Ohio State 52-17
■ Iowa at Minnesota: I’m only picking this game because they play for a pig. It’s Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze pork trophy awarded to the winner, and the rivalry is always tight and sloppy. I could try, but frankly, there’s no putting lipstick on this one. Pick: Iowa 23-12
■ Notre Dame at Virginia Tech: Watch out America, because if the Fighting Irish (5-0) win here, they just might roll to the playoff. The Hokies are the final ranked team on the schedule, and they don’t count because they lost to Old Dominion. Notre Dame still has to play Florida State and USC, but both inexplicably decided to stink this year. Even staid ol’ Notre Dame has embraced new-age principles, such as assigning quarterback Ian Book more duties than just handing the ball off. Pick: Notre Dame 27-14