Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the Michigan-Michigan State game in East Lansing on Saturday. The Detroit News
He’s up to something. You know he is.
Just when you think Mark Dantonio has run out of ways to torture Michigan, he’s conjuring up an ingenious one. I’m not saying Dantonio is some mystical wizard capable of unleashing horrific misfortune upon Michigan State’s only true rival. I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolverines are driving late in the fourth quarter Saturday and the skies open up and drop fishes and frogs on the field.
The plan is unfolding perfectly. First, Michigan State loses two games to unranked teams, to dampen expectations. Then more players get hurt, compounding the adversity. Then the Spartans dupe James Franklin and Penn State, just to plant a seed of hope in East Lansing and a crop of doubt in Ann Arbor. Then Dantonio comes out and says nice things about Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, softening them up. Rumor is, he even suggested the winged helmets “aren’t completely ugly,” although I can’t confirm it.
All the while, Michigan is minding its own business, winning six straight to climb to No. 6 in the country, oblivious to what awaits. Now the Wolverines head to East Lansing yet again as the favorites, yet again as the unsuspecting foils, certain this is the year they return the rivalry to its natural state, and by “natural state,” I mean “the 1970s and '80s.”
Listen. Should Michigan win Saturday? Based on normal tangibles, sure.
Have the Wolverines finally acknowledged the enormous importance of the game and admitted losing eight of 10 isn’t totally a fluke? Publicly, yes. Privately, I’ll get back to you on that.
Do the Spartans still view this game as the ultimate measure of their self-worth as players and humans, as their manifest destiny, as the apex of their lives? Yep, and that’s the gap the Wolverines have struggled to close.
Over the past decade, since Mike Hart politely complimented the Spartans on their sibling status, this has turned dramatically, although not surprisingly. While Michigan was trying the RichRod Experience, and then a whirl on the Hoke-and-Poke, Dantonio was building a band of angry Spartans, like in the movie “300.” (On a sad note, all 300 Spartans in the movie perished, although the Wolverines obviously had nothing to do with it.)
At the risk of over-simplifying a rivalry once dominated by Michigan, let’s just say the Spartans proudly wear chips on their shoulders, while the Wolverines have been known to don tassels. Whether it’s disrespect chips, poker chips, potato chips, cow chips, Chips Ahoy! or chips and salsa, it doesn’t matter how sloppy the shoulder pads get. Again and again, the Spartans under Dantonio demand to know: When will you stop doubting us?!
Easy answer: When you stop losing inexplicable games that stir the doubters, then cleverly win inexplicable games that mock the doubters. I’m not saying it’s the Spartans’ fault, but it kind of is.
It’s also Michigan’s fault for not recognizing and matching Michigan State’s singular obsession. According to my imaginary sources, the Spartans’ trophy case prominently displays the Paul Bunyan Trophy, right next to the Muffed Punt Trophy. After practice, they reportedly break down their huddle with, “One, two, three, trouble with the snap!”
Of course, that was Dantonio’s cruelest twist ever, convincing Michigan’s punter to bobble the ball with 10 seconds remaining three years ago. Dantonio always has something extra for this game, and throughout his career, is famous for naming trick plays. There was “Little Giants” against Notre Dame in 2010, “Mousetrap” against Northwestern in 2010, “Charlie Brown” against Nebraska in 2013, and “Monsoon Conditions” against Michigan last season. This year, I heard he’s going to spring an unorthodox gadget called “6-Yard Run.”
From what I understand, Harbaugh is altering his strategy too, and plans to bring an actual quarterback or two to the game. You might recall, Michigan employed a completely different strategy last season, throwing three interceptions and turning the ball over five times in Michigan State’s 14-10 victory. The Spartans were so confident they’d keep getting the ball back, they spent most of the second half taking a knee on second and third downs.
Don’t get me wrong. Dantonio is a darn fine coach, and there’s no firm evidence he’s a registered wizard with a master’s degree in sorcery (Hogwarts Class of '79). But it’s clear somebody performed a mind-bend on Harbaugh, tricking him into calling pass plays in the driving wind and rain.
Now the forecast calls for a chance of precipitation (not necessarily frogs), and because of their new congeniality, Dantonio and Harbaugh discussed it on a recent phone call, fabricated and secretly recorded as always:
Dantonio: “Jim, looking forward to a great day of football. Low 70s, light breeze.”
Harbaugh: “Perfect. No need to pack the rain cleats?”
Dantonio: “Nah. Also, just to let you know, we have so many injuries we’re hoping to piece together an offense with backups, walk-ons and graduates with eligibility remaining.”
Harbaugh: “Sorry to hear that. We’ll try to take it easy, in the spirit of sportsmanship.”
Truthfully, I don’t know if Michigan will fall for it again. Michigan State has covered the spread 10 straight years, easily most times. The Wolverines are favored by seven and actually won on their last trip to East Lansing (I double-checked to be sure).
This game will be won in the trenches, between the white lines. The Wolverines better hope it’s not won between the ears.
Pick: Michigan 20-10
Ohio State at Purdue: The Buckeyes may be No. 2 in the country, but they’ve quietly stopped playing much defense, and just lost star Nick Bosa to the NFL. The Boilermakers, meanwhile, have quietly stopped being total patsies, led by coach Jeff Brohm and quarterback David Blough. The firm of Boilers-Brohm-and-Blough will make this interesting, for a while. Pick: Ohio State 54-31
Maryland at Iowa: At 5-1, the Hawkeyes technically have a slim, slim, slim (very slim) chance to be in playoff contention. Maryland is 4-2, and here’s a surprising stat I stumbled across while conducting rare research: The Terps are first in the nation in red-zone offense, scoring on all 15 attempts. Whatever. That’s why I usually skip the research. Pick: Iowa 37-16
Western Michigan at Central Michigan: This is such a big, raucous rivalry, I heard Chippewa fans are importing lightly-charred mattresses and shopping carts from East Lansing. The Broncos have won five straight, and as long as they follow the Spartans’ lead and keep the chips on their shoulders, they’ll put the Chips on the ground. Pick: Western Michigan 33-24