Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview this weekend's college football games between UM-Rutgers and MSU-Indiana. The Detroit News
About the 15th or 16th time a big ol’ Badger went rumbling past a skittish Michigan player, something didn’t seem right. The Wolverines weren’t playing football. They were serving as crossing guards, politely helping heavy-set Wisconsin people down the field.
It was like nothing we’d ever seen before, although we had. We’ve seen it enough to know Michigan might struggle to win the first of its scheduled three consecutive national championships. We’ve seen it enough to wonder why, in the fifth season under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines are still trying to figure out who they are, and why the darn football is so slippery.
I’m not saying they’re lacking mental toughness, evident in that 35-14 stomping by Wisconsin. I’m just saying, when an opposing defender charges in for a tackle, a Michigan player is apt to shriek and toss the ball away as if it were a spider on his uniform. I’m just saying, when the Wolverines have fallen behind against good teams lately, they’ve crumpled like hot dog wrappers (62-39, 41-15, you know the drill).
Is that too harsh? A bit too harsh, I suppose, although they have lost seven fumbles in their 2-1 start. But maybe some harshness is what they need, a feisty edge, a sharp offensive plan that doesn’t include handing the ball to a defensive lineman near the goal line.
When Harbaugh arrived, he was a well-compensated savior hired to put Michigan back on par with Ohio State. Now fans are hoping to be back on par with Iowa. It’s gotten so tense in Ann Arbor, they ordered up an emergency dose of Rutgers this weekend to feel better.
With the new “#LostInSpace” offense, everyone knew Michigan wouldn’t be its old smash-mouthy self. That was fine, because innovation is part of evolution. But first-year coordinator Josh Gattis is discovering the video-game joystick doesn’t operate quite as well on the field as it does on the couch.
Listen, is some overreaction going on here? Of course, this is college football, where hyperbole is fuel and just when you think you’ve figured something out, you look like a doofus. One week ago, Mark Dantonio was doddering and destined to remain tied with Duffy Daugherty in perpetuity. Now after a 31-10 beating of Northwestern, Dantonio holds the program’s victories record and the Spartans are skipping merrily into a showdown with Indiana.
One week ago, UCLA’s Chip Kelly was considered a colossal high-priced disaster. Then the Bruins wiped out a 49-17 deficit to stun Washington State, 67-63, and Kelly is still considered a colossal high-priced disaster. OK, not a good example.
One year ago, Michigan pounded Wisconsin, 38-13, as the Badgers played the role of docile crossing guards. People wondered if Wisconsin’s offense was too slow and stodgy, in need of a better nutrition plan. Now they wonder if the Badgers would beat Alabama 38-7 or 38-6.
Things change quickly in this game, and as I’ve always said, college football is like a box of chocolates. Sometimes you think you’re getting a hard nutty one and it turns out to be a gooey jelly one in disguise.
Five years ago, Harbaugh was the coaching hotness, bringing NFL expertise and a quirky personality to revive his alma mater. Today, some compare him to another quirky, khakied genius brought in to resurrect a storied program. No, I don’t think Harbaugh is Charlie Weis, minus 175 pounds, but pundits are eager to keep shoveling.
This is the moment college football fans have waited for, Michigan State fans have lived for, and Paul Finebaum gets all tingly about. This is the perfect time to jump on the pile, to mock Michigan’s arrogance and point out that Harbaugh still steadfastly declines to beat Ohio State, and also once climbed a tree at a recruit’s house.
The national reaction has been gleeful, which the Wolverines should have expected and can’t really gripe about. Harbaugh purposely demanded attention, and now that he has a whole lot more, he can’t hide from it, and he isn’t. Who knows, maybe he’ll be inspired by it and get mad enough to fling a headset, for old time’s sake.
He has to see Urban Meyer on national TV dissecting all Michigan’s mishaps, rupturing facial muscles to keep from smirking. Meyer even felt compelled to say he wouldn’t be interested in the Michigan job if it came open, as if it were a serious inquiry. Also announcing they weren’t interested in the Michigan job: John Cooper, Rich Rodriguez, Lou Holtz, Bobby Williams, Bobby Petrino and Rick Pitino.
Even people who respect Michigan are chiming in, from Charles Woodson to former Buckeye Chris Spielman, who said he couldn’t tell the Wolverines from a MAC-level team. At this rate, we’re mere days away from Eastern Michigan declaring itself the reigning power of Washtenaw County.
The Wolverines are wounded, emotionally and physically, and they can’t expect an ounce of sympathy. Rutgers comes in Saturday probably thinking it can win, just like that pesky Army team did. The Black Knights nearly pulled it off but the Scarlet Knights are knights of a different color, 8-31 under coach Chris Ash, 3-25 in the Big Ten. As for job security, it increasingly looks like this Ash is grass. The Wolverines had better feast while they still can.
Pick: Michigan 34-10
Indiana at Michigan State: If you adhere to the weekly overreaction pattern, you expect the Spartans to score 50 and crush the little Hoosier hearts again. But remember, this is an emotional rivalry game, with the victor awarded the Old Brass Spittoon, along with a commemorative container of Lysol disinfecting wipes. The rest of the country might not give two spits about this game but we sure do! Pick: Michigan State 30-13
Northwestern at Wisconsin: The Badgers have to be careful about a hangover, which is a daily concern in the state of Wisconsin. Especially so after thumping Michigan, which prompted the following overreactions: Wisconsin has the best defense in the country! Jonathan Taylor is the greatest back in college football history! Dairy products don’t slow you down after all! Pick: Wisconsin 40-13
Ohio State at Nebraska: I hate to belabor this theme (no I don’t), but Nebraska’s Scott Frost is another hometown savior type who hasn’t validated the hype. Nebraska (3-1) is 7-9 overall under Frost, hunting a signature win. Won’t be easy, because The Ryan Day will soon be declared the greatest first-year head coach in modern sports history. Pick: Ohio State 45-25