Wojo: Wolverines, Spartans again have plenty to fight about

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Unexpected by some, demanded by others, it’s back on. Michigan’s title hopes are back on. Michigan State’s Big Ten title hopes are back on.

Maybe you didn’t see it coming, but it’s coming. Michigan-Michigan State is back on as the clash that will set the path for both teams’ seasons. Winning huge games is the gateway to huger games, and the Wolverines and Spartans pulled it off in different, wholly impressive ways.

Michigan thumped Wisconsin 38-13 Saturday night to improve to 6-1 and leap all the way to No. 6 in the AP rankings. That was the demanded part.

Michigan State stunned Penn State on the road, 21-17, to resurrect its season at 4-2, climb back into the rankings at No. 24, and give it another chance to wreck its rival’s run. That was the unexpected part.

So now, just when you wondered whether the in-state squabble would mean as much as it usually does, we have an improbable showdown at noon Saturday in East Lansing. Michigan moved into national contention with its dismantling of No. 15 Wisconsin. As expected, Shea Patterson unveiled more of his playmaking ability, running the read option to open up the offense, and Jim Harbaugh’s team made its strongest statement yet that it’s toughened for the tests ahead.

But really, this is a monstrous game because of what Michigan State and Mark Dantonio did in Happy Valley, as two-touchdown underdogs against the No. 8 Nittany Lions. The Spartans were up to their bold tricks again, emptying their bag of gadgets and refilling their tank of motivation. They entered the game teetering, and then shortly after Brian Lewerke found Felton Davis on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left, they exited with renewed expectations.

Skeptics hit the road

“So everyone wants to doubt us?” Davis told reporters afterward. “Just keep doing it.”

I doubt Michigan will keep doing it, having lost eight of the past 10 to Michigan State. With the nation’s second-ranked defense, an improving offensive line, a terrific senior back in Karan Higdon and a mobile quarterback in Patterson, this might be the most-complete and versatile team in Harbaugh’s four seasons. Might be.

 Somehow through seven games, Michigan either has proven a lot or not very much, depending on how you gauge their opponents. With four top-10 teams losing, the Wolverines vaulted into the playoff picture, but would get knocked right out with one more loss.

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Essentially, this game should determine which team, Michigan or Michigan State, will be in Big Ten contention when each plays Ohio State later in the season. An elimination game of sorts, of course. Harbaugh is 1-2 against Michigan State, losing in crushing fashion twice. The prevailing narrative is, the Spartans take the rivalry more seriously, driven by Dantonio. It’s a narrative that has had merit, but I have a feeling the Wolverines are sick of hearing about it.

Asked if his team will be able to match the Spartans’ intensity, Harbaugh stared straight ahead and said succinctly, “We’ll be really intense for it.”

No followup offered, no followup necessary.

In many ways, Dantonio and Harbaugh were at their best Saturday, rallying teams that have been harshly critiqued at times. The Spartans had just lost at home to Northwestern, their offensive line and receiving corps were battered by injury, and players were searching for direction.

Dantonio and his staff provided it, altering blocking schemes to spread the line out, creating gaps Penn State didn’t expect. It took every piece of ingenuity imaginable, as Lewerke was off (24-for-52). But the defense smothered Trace McSorley, and Dantonio showed why he’s a remarkable big-game coach, calling for a fake punt, a fake field goal and a halfback option pass. Two of the three worked, as did a field-position gamble late in the game.

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To illustrate their feisty resolve, players brought poker chips into the locker room before the game and slapped them on a table. Oh yes, the shoulder chips and poker chips are back, as the Spartans gambled and played with purpose.

 “There are moments like this when you see people gear up, get themselves ready to go, and I can’t describe it to you, really,” Dantonio said. “I’m very proud of this team and how they handled things, how they kept playing and playing. It wasn’t perfect. We talked about when you’re at odds with things, rising up may be the biggest challenge, but it also might be your biggest triumph.”

It certainly was one of Michigan State’s biggest, although it has posted too many improbable bounce-backs to recount. It wouldn’t be improbable for the Spartans to win Saturday, although Michigan will be about a touchdown favorite.

Expect the unexpected

As the Wolverines have painfully discovered, anything can happen in this series. Of the three matchups between Harbaugh and Dantonio, only one was relatively routine, a 32-23 Michigan victory in East Lansing in 2016.

Last year, the Wolverines collapsed as favorites and fell to the Spartans 14-10 on a windy, rainy night. That sent Michigan spiraling to an 8-5 season, and sent Harbaugh to a 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. Three years ago, there was the famous fumbled punt in the final 10 seconds of a momentous 27-23 Michigan State victory.

All of that has refilled Michigan’s tank of motivation too. On the field Saturday night, defensive end Chase Winovich declared to ABC-TV, “The revenge tour has officially commenced.”

In that scenario, Wisconsin was first up, followed by Michigan State, followed by Penn State, followed by Ohio State. Since losing their opener at Notre Dame, the Wolverines have played with steely steadiness, tested only once, in a comeback victory at Northwestern.

 “It’s just a start, we’re not done yet,” Higdon said after beating the Badgers. “It’s personal every game from here on out. We got a lot left, got more games coming up, and we just got people in our way. It’s up to us to knock them out of there.”

Oh, it’ll be a knockout game all right. These bitter rivals always have something to fight about and this year is no different, with each determined to wipe away lingering doubts.


Twitter @bobwojnowski