Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Can the Spartans drag their offense out of the muck?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is hoping to see a better performance from his offense this weekend.

Well, apparently this is going to take some work. Michigan and Michigan State diligently spent the offseason redecorating their offenses, installing all sorts of wrinkles such as “more quarterbacks” and “optional blocking,” and the early results are, ahem, mixed.

Jim Harbaugh locked his new coordinator Josh Gattis in a room and when he returned, the whiteboard looked like a complex finger painting, with bright-colored splotches smeared in random places. Dozens of empty Red Bull cans were piled in a corner.

Mark Dantonio locked his new coordinator Brad Salem in a room and when he returned, a couple stick figures with illegible thought bubbles were scrawled on the whiteboard, and the floor was littered with paper airplanes and chewed pencils.

It shouldn’t be that hard to pump up an offense, should it? I mean, in last week’s openers, Maryland and Penn State each scored 79 points, Rutgers scored 48 and Illinois managed to put up 42 (the same as Alabama!). I’m old enough to remember when Illinois needed two-and-a-half seasons to score 42 points.

Dantonio was furious after the Spartans staggered past Tulsa, 28-7, and longtime observers noted it was the angriest they’d seen him since Harbaugh appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a few years ago. Michigan State’s defense remains suitably ferocious, so scary it intimidated Tulsa into hiking the ball way over everyone’s head.

Before the season, the Vegas over-under for Michigan State was 7.5. I assumed that was for victories, not offensive points per game. It’s only one outing, fair enough, but if the leading scorers in a few weeks are still Kenny Willekes and a red-headed kicker named Matt, the Spartans are in trouble.

Sorry, but in the absence of an O, we’re forced to shrink Dantni’s name, until further notice. What’s weird is, seemingly every Tom, William and Mary is running some sort of up-tempo spread offense these days. Heck, Western Michigan comes to town Saturday night with a prolific senior quarterback, Jon Wassink, who throws everything but the wash sink at you.

Dantni took the rare step of questioning his line’s toughness after watching it block with the tenacity and efficiency of Secretary of State office workers. (Doesn’t it seem like there’s always five confused, undersized SOS workers trying to hold off dozens of onrushing customers? That’s Michigan State’s blocking scheme!)

I’m not saying Dantni is looking for innovative offensive ideas. I’m just saying he was spotted in an East Lansing sandwich shop with a stocking cap pulled low, chatting with someone only identified as Mr. John LLL. I’m just saying to keep spirits up, Dantni sends his first-team defense to Dave & Buster’s and lets the offense practice against pylons (sorry to pile on). In one such scrimmage, the offense sharply drove 80 yards in 13 plays, capped by a fourth-down run.

One twist that coaches must deal with these days is the transfer portal, a dark passageway to the underworld (or Ohio State), where quarterbacks head within seconds of being benched. That partly explains the growing use of two quarterbacks. The Spartans are trying to coax more production out of Brian Lewerke, but in those odd moments when they want the opposition to know exactly which play is coming, they put Rocky Lombardi in to run.

The Wolverines have a slightly less urgent dilemma. Their offense looked much more — how shall we say it? — intriguingly funky in a 40-21 victory over Middle Tennessee State. They had to use everything to win because they weren’t facing the other, lesser Tennessee program.

Let’s be very clear on this. Shea Patterson is Michigan’s quarterback, unless he fumbles, in which case Dylan McCaffrey is the quarterback, unless he fumbles, in which case Patterson is the quarterback, unless he fumbles. Harbaugh is determined to play both quarterbacks every game, even if it means using McCaffrey as a long snapper.

Michigan had better be ready this week, because Army comes to town with its military precision offense that does one thing over and over and dares you not to get glassy-eyed. The methodical triple-option attack is so effective, the Black Knights have the second-longest winning streak in the nation (10 games), behind only Clemson. Every now and then, when you least expect it, Army throws in a surprise play, averaging 7.5 passes per game, which is not a made-up statistic.

This is not a made-up score either: Oklahoma 28, Army 21 (OT) last season. Under normal circumstances, the Black Knights and Broncos wouldn’t cause much intestinal quivering. Word of caution: These are not normal circumstances around here.

The picks

Army at Michigan: Army employed its bore-you-to-sleep-until-you-wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat tactic perfectly last week, numbing Rice, 14-7. The Wolverines had better be careful because this game starts at noon, and before they realize it, they could be midway through the fourth quarter at 1:10 p.m. nursing a 7-3 lead. Pick: Michigan 27-10

Western Michigan at Michigan State: The Spartans accidentally allowed minus-73 yards rushing to Tulsa but I’m guessing that number will increase dramatically this week, all the way up to 0. The Broncos shouldn’t run the ball once, and just hope Matt Coghlin misses a FG or two. At his current pace, Coghlin will break Steph Curry’s 3-point record by midseason. Pick: Michigan State 27-13

Cincinnati at an Ohio school: Bearcats coach Luke Fickell threw a hissy fit when he couldn’t get a Michigan transfer eligible, not that another Wolverine would help in this game. In the offseason, the Buckeyes also raided Michigan, swiping two assistant coaches, which seemed rude and thoroughly unnecessary. Pick: Ohio State 38-17

Texas A&M at Clemson: The No. 1 Tigers have won by more than 20 in 11 straight games, which either means they’re historically great or the ACC is historically pathetic. Or likely, both. After this, Clemson has one moderately tough game, at Syracuse, and then can start booking hotels for the championship game in New Orleans. Pick: Clemson 45-31

LSU at Texas: This is approximately the 37th time in the past decade that Texas is back. It actually might be legitimate, because for the first time in three years the Longhorns didn’t lose their opener to Maryland. Problem is, Ed Orgeron has put together a championship team down on the Bayou despite being completely incomprehensible when he speaks. They call him Coach O, which means he can expect a call for advice from Coach D. Pick: LSU 30-21


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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