Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Time to put up (points) or shut up for Spartans, Wolverines

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

At noon Saturday, the Big Ten season begins for the local teams. By 3:15 p.m. or so, we should know if the season is over.

OK, that’s way, way over the top. We actually might know by 1:30 p.m.

OK, that’s still ridiculous, especially in a gentile sport like college football, where fans allow a season to leisurely unfold, just hoping the boys try their best and do their studies and avoid dangerous situations such as frat parties and transfer portals. But alas, angst is the prevailing sentiment as Michigan and Michigan State open with critical road games facing critical questions. I’m not saying things are shaky around here. I’m just saying when the Lions have the most stable offense in the state, we’ve got issues.

The Spartans travel to Northwestern, and they can’t expect the support of the 12th man again. In case you missed it, Mark Dantonio went all John L. last week, collapsing against Arizona State, 10-7, while the Benny Hill theme music blared over the sound system. A tying field goal was wiped out by a 12-confused-men-on-the-field penalty, and moments later, the officiating crew missed an obvious infraction. Within minutes, the Pac-12 sent out its standard form letter admitting the mistake and vowing to do a better job “knowing all the stupid rules.”

While Michigan State (2-1) is reeling from a bitter defeat, Michigan (2-0) is reeling from a bitter double-overtime victory. Now the Wolverines travel to Wisconsin, where they haven’t won since 2001, to face a Badgers team that has outscored unnamed opponents 438-0, or thereabouts.

This is a crucial game for Jim Harbaugh, which makes it exactly the same as every game for Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines are 0-6 as underdogs under Harbaugh, which clearly means they should try harder not to be underdogs. According to my sketchy records, the program’s last road victory against a ranked team was in 1948, beating Ohio State, 13-3, when the Buckeyes were coached by interim Duke Fickell.

The Wolverines seem legitimately miffed that people are mad at them for taking way too long to beat Army. Their new offense hasn’t been dynamic, although even on a bye, it almost outscored Michigan State. And now the Wolverines are picked to lose because the Badgers have another herd of farm-raised linemen and a large fella named Jonathan Taylor to rumble behind them. There are reports they also have a quarterback capable of throwing, but this cannot be independently verified.

Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin is a good team. But it’s not like coach Paul Chryst can walk on water or anything.

As you might have heard, big games have been a bit of an issue for the Wolverines, who are 1-9 against top-10 teams the past four years. They annually hammer lots of opponents, except for the really good ones. And according to the Inverse Law of Harbaughology, if they beat a really good one, that team immediately is reclassified as “not really good.”

To beat the No. 13 Badgers, Michigan will have to crank up its RPO offense and ditch the RIP (Run-Illegal formation-Punt). It will be a raucous atmosphere in Madison, and the Wolverines are strongly advised to stop arrogantly handing out 7-0 leads.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Shea Patterson will look to make a statement at Wisconsin on Saturday.

It won’t be as raucous in Evanston, Illinois, where the Spartans don’t have much time to regroup. Devastating losses can linger, and that innovative 12-man formation already has entered program lore. Michigan has its famous “Whooaa, he has trouble with the snap!” punt gaffe, and now the Spartans have their “Whooaa, he has trouble with the math!” penalty gaffe. (I make no apologies.)

After the crushing loss to Arizona State, school officials spent the next two days wheeling the iced champagne out of the locker room and ripping down the banners and protective plastic tarp. The celebration for Dantonio’s all-time wins record was postponed, although the streamers, bubbly and cigars will be trucked to Northwestern. Dignitaries should be in attendance too, including the athletic director, whoever that is.

Dantonio seems genuinely baffled what to do with a team that plays defense like maniacs and offense like insomniacs. He’s so enamored with Ohio State’s renowned Tresselball era, he collects Tressels wherever he can find ‘em, including defensive coordinator Mike. I’m not saying it can divide the team, but according to my addled sources, the defense will fly first class to Evanston while the offense will Uber.

College football makes overreacting fools of us all (sometimes even me), and it’s easy to be duped by big numbers and small numbers. For instance, Michigan State has lost three in a row to Northwestern, and yet is a nine-point favorite. Coincidentally, nine happens to be the over-under total for the game. Perhaps the oddsmakers figure the Spartans’ defense will hold the Wildcats to minus-149 yards rushing. I suppose it’s possible, because when Michigan State takes the field, you know it’ll be a group of 12 Angry Men.

The picks

Michigan State at Northwestern: These teams always play the wackiest games, as you can tell by the scores from their last four meetings: 29-19, 39-31, 54-40, 89-76. Only one of those is fake and I bet you can’t even guess which one. The Spartans need this badly, before the champagne loses its fizz. In key field-goal situations, don’t count them out! (Don’t count them up, either). Pick: Michigan State 10-9

Michigan at Wisconsin: Shea Patterson needs a strong game to leap back into September Heisman contention. That said, the overreaction to the Army non-loss was a bit out of control. I mean my goodness, no, Michigan is not the worst 2-0 team in the country, although the slot is wide open after Maryland and Illinois bombed last week. Pick: Wisconsin 24-20

Notre Dame at Georgia: Notre Dame is always trying to keep up with Michigan, but this is a bit silly. Since 2013, the Irish are 2-9 on the road against ranked teams. They’d better be careful and not look ahead to their Oct. 26 showdown in Ann Arbor. Pick: Georgia 38-17

Miami (Ohio) at (not Miami) Ohio: Urban Meyer must be very proud — and also completely annoyed — that successor Ryan Day has the Buckeyes offense looking as nuts as ever. The Buckeyes beat Cincinnati 42-0, and Cincinnati beat Miami (O) 35-13, so you do the math. Pick: (not Miami) Ohio 77-13

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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