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Wojo's Pigskin Picks: After distressing trends, will UM, MSU finally stride right?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

These are difficult times indeed around here. Michigan State is trying to regroup after a devastating 34-10 loss to Ohio State, while Michigan is trying to regroup after a devastating 3-10 victory over Iowa.

This is a critical weekend for both squads, which makes it exactly the same as every weekend ever in the history of college football. But this seems different, with the Spartans and Wolverines teetering a bit, forcing Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh to downplay concerns. Of course, asking fans to maintain perspective is like asking fans to maintain a strict two-12-packs-per-person tailgate limit, with no more than three bottles of Fireball.

Harbaugh has tried admirably to explain that 10 points is a larger total than three, and Michigan technically is 4-1 as it heads to Illinois on Saturday. But the fact is, the offense still looks addled, unsure if it wants to run three times and punt, or throw three incompletions and punt. I’m not saying there are questions about new coordinator Josh Gattis. I’m just saying he’s the latest to be asked to give a deposition, to produce evidence of a playbook.

The Wolverines are standing firm though, with Harbaugh insisting the offense is “hitting their stride.” This seemed odd considering the offense frequently hit the opposing defensive line in stride and then fell down. I found it so odd, I sat down with Harbaugh for a rare exclusive interview that I completely fabricated and secretly recorded, as always.

Me: “In what areas, specifically, do you think your offense is hitting its stride?”

Harbaugh: “All areas. Any area you can think of. Training room etiquette, laundry duties, juice breaks. Very smooth.”

Me: “What about on the field?”

Harbaugh: “Still striding in a strident manner, stridently. Have you ever strided?”

Me: “Have you ever seen me approach a media buffet? What’s an example of a stride you’ve made?”

Harbaugh: “I did the electric stride at a wedding reception once.”

Me (fumbling through notes): “Uh, it doesn’t bother you that others don’t believe this whole stride thing?”

Harbaugh: “Not at all. It’s well-documented — stride comes before the fall.”

Jim Harbaugh, left, and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will look to kick Michigan's offense into another gear this weekend at Illinois.

Well, that indeed may be happening in East Lansing, where Dantonio is trying to keep his team together amid a spate of injuries, mistakes and portal breaks. The truth is, even after getting slammed by the Buckeyes, Michigan State (4-2) still has all its season goals alive, which never change year to year.

Spartans’ annual goals: 1. Beat $&*%#*# Michigan. 2. Sober up after beating Michigan. 3. Rewatch Michigan game most weekday nights.

Michigan State has quite the task Saturday against No. 8 Wisconsin, which has shut out three of its five opponents. However, the Badgers haven’t faced anybody of note, not a single tough game that I recall, and their most impressive win probably was 61-0 over Central Michigan.

It’s a hazardous time to head to Wisconsin, where the football teams traditionally are fattening up for the long winter. The Badgers did feast on Michigan up there and the Packers welcome the Lions Monday night. When the Lions have a better chance to win in Wisconsin than the Spartans or Wolverines, we’ve obviously stumbled into a portal to a parallel universe.

Speaking of which, Michigan State officials are rapidly constructing a satellite portal adjacent to the practice field, to allow players to transfer the minute they don’t get to run a minus 7-yard jet sweep. Several Spartans recently jumped in, and the place is getting quite crowded. According to unsubstantiated reports, the portal was shut down briefly after it got clogged when former MSU president John Engler tried to wedge his way in.

The portal is not for everyone, although it has become disturbingly attractive to lots of people. It makes you wonder, where exactly is the main portal (somewhere in Kansas, I assume) and what’s down there? Is it like the hatch in “Lost,” with an annoying button that has to be pressed every 108 minutes? Is there room for an entire new civilization? Are there snacks and bathing facilities? If no one wants you, are you resigned to a lifelong portal existence?

I heard Dantonio tried to nudge his assistants toward the portal but I could be mistaken. Everything is forgiven if the Spartans beat Wisconsin, but it won’t be easy. People complain about the transfer issue in college football, but I’m more concerned about the cloning issue. The Badgers again have a bruising back (Jonathan Taylor), a modest quarterback, a relatively unknown coach with a doughy face, and an offensive line weighing slightly more than a metric ton (before breakfast).

It seems unfair nobody forces Wisconsin to modernize its offense with a spread or something, like all the cool Big Ten teams are doing. Instead, it’ll be a dairy spread on Saturday, and the Badgers plan to cover that spread.

Pick: Wisconsin 27-10

The picks

Michigan at Illinois: Harbaugh goes through quarterbacks like most people go through undergarments, generally two per season. Former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters will be on the other sideline, although he might not play due to injury. Shea Patterson is still making strides in the new offense, and as a great astronaut once said, “One small stride for Michigan, one giant stride for college football.” Pick: Michigan 31-8

Penn State at Iowa: The Nittany Lions appear powerful, although they’ve expertly dodged any opponent of consequence. That’s about to change, and you know the Hawkeyes will be bursting with confidence after running up three points on Michigan. A night game in Iowa City is scary, and the Hawkeyes should be able to match Penn State stride for stride. Pick: Iowa 20-17

Florida at LSU: It’s a huge weekend outside of the Big Ten’s pleasant little bubble, and this one has serious implications. Big Eddie O’s Tigers remain my national title pick, but it’s unclear why they were allowed to effortlessly update their offense without anybody mocking them. Pick: LSU 24-17

USC at Notre Dame: Gigantic stakes here, and quite a dilemma for the Fighting Irish. They’d love to pound USC and hasten the departure of Clay Helton, but that means Urban Meyer would be ever closer to taking over in L.A. Notre Dame is still in the championship picture thanks to its spectacular 17-23 loss to Georgia. Pick: Notre Dame 31-23

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin

View from the other side: Michigan at Illinois

View from the other side: Michigan State at Wisconsin

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Michigan players wish the best for Brandon Peters – except on Saturday