Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry with Chris Howard and Nick Hill. The Detroit News
Detroit – There’s no chance, right? I mean, no chance this will be another tight, nasty edition of the Backyard Brawl, where the team that delivers the last under-the-pile package punch wins the game.
Haha. I crack myself up sometimes. Of course there’s a chance Michigan State does more than score one touchdown, or perhaps two field goals. I say this not to patronize the plucky Spartans, or to scare the haughty Wolverines, but come on, we’ve seen this before. Michigan is primping and Michigan State is limping and everyone assumes it’ll be a beatdown, decided way before the final mishandled punt.
That’s just not how it usually works. The Wolverines got the memo about a dozen years ago, when Mark Dantonio arrived and started firing short jokes at Michigan running backs who made disparaging remarks. It took a while for the Wolverines to fully understand, but they get it now.
That’s why our entire state, from the Blue to the Green, from the old factories to the new “herbal” farms, is trembling this week. Michigan is 7-2 and sort of rolling. Michigan State is 4-5 and still trolling. The Wolverines are two-touchdown favorites. The Spartans spent the past week re-watching tape of their Illinois loss, where they took a 28-3 lead and then inexplicably pulled out their mats and started doing yoga on the sideline.
Trust me, both sides are nervous, despite the disparities. Michigan fans are petrified they’ll blow it again in the Big House. Michigan State fans are petrified they’ll get blown out in the Big House, even though it hasn’t really happened since the heartfelt 49-3 send-off for Bobby Williams in 2002.
Jim Harbaugh is 2-2 against Dantonio but 0-2 in Ann Arbor, and he’s taking it very, very seriously. This is Harbaugh’s chance to wrestle the rivalry back, to lock the Paul Bunyan Trophy in a storage room, next to the cob-webbed Big Ten championship banners. There even are indications Dantonio might hang up his scowl and move on, in the midst of a rocky four-year run in which the Spartans made the odd strategic decision to stop playing offense.
All the pressure is on the Wolverines, and sorry to say, they’ve generally handled big-game pressure with the poise of a student driver in an I-94 construction zone. They’re 4-8 against Dantonio, which is why Michigan fans will don their “Dantonio Diapers” Saturday, the preferred accessory to handle lower-intestinal distress if it’s 7-3 at halftime and Dantonio has faked six punts and summoned multiple pop-up snow showers.
As pleasant and genial as Dantonio and Harbaugh have been this week – “Your pants look great!” “So do yours!” -- you can bet the Spartans have one more spirited response in them. Because of last year’s pregame StormtrooperGate, Michigan has beefed up security to prevent the Spartans from marching menacingly into Michigan Stadium. You’ll recall the Spartans were met by the solitary resistance last year of Devin Bush, who dug his cleats into the midfield logo in Spartan Stadium and tore up the sod, forcing Michigan State to put its agriculture expertise to quick use.
To their credit, the Wolverines finally are committed to fighting back, instead of pretending Michigan State is their seventh-biggest rival behind, in no particular order: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Army, Refs, Appalachian State and Florida. I heard if the Spartans attempt to brandish lightsabers or blasters of any kind on the field Saturday, they’ll be confiscated. Also, Michigan long ago cleverly installed artificial turf, so digging at it with cleats could result in severe ankle sprains.
The buildup to this game certainly doesn’t match the emotional vitriol of past encounters, possibly because the Spartan are weary of being the ones forced to stir it up. For instance, I’m in possession of an imaginary tape of Dantonio’s planned pregame speech, transcribed here for your reading pleasure:
Dantonio: “Men, keep chasing that moment, although do it without dropping the ball please.”
Players: “Yes, coach.”
Dantonio: “Remember, there’s pride and then some sort of a fall, and things of that nature.”
Dantonio: “Also, it’s never over, yada yada, just getting started, yada yada, you know what I mean.”
Players: “Of course, coach.”
Hmm. Looks like it could be a tad difficult for the Spartans to get fired up. Normally, they pretend to be angry and disrespected if someone merely misspells DanAntoni’s name completely by accident, over and over. Now they’ll have to use last year’s grass-kicking, arse-kicking combo for inspiration because they can’t just count on Michigan throwing interceptions in inclement weather, or lining up in goofy punt formations with 10 seconds left, right?
There’s too much at stake for the Wolverines, and no way they’ll be looking ahead to next week’s rivalry showdown against Indiana. There’s plenty at stake for the Spartans too, who aren’t yet bowl-eligible but remain in contention to play in Ford Field, a historic venue renowned for hosting postseason games exclusively for college and high school football.
Until last year’s 21-7 victory, Michigan hadn’t covered the spread against Michigan State in 10 straight meetings, and hadn’t won the game by two touchdowns in 13 years. But sorry, in every rivalry on the planet, “no chance” means “kind of a chance.” As always, you throw the record books out the window and hope they don’t strike pedestrians below. And if it’s 24-20 with .000001 second left, or 23-21 with 10 seconds left, it’s never over. Not until it’s over.
Pick: Michigan 31-10
► Ohio State at Rutgers: The NCAA agreed the Buckeyes should be allowed to rest star student-athlete Chase Young for a second straight game, even if it puts Ohio State at a severe disadvantage in this one. That also ensures Young can play against Penn State and Michigan, which is surprising only if you’re from Belarus and have never followed college football. The Buckeyes were favored by 53, but without Young, it plummeted to 52.25. Pick: Ohio State 63-3
► Minnesota at Iowa: They generally play this game for nothing more than a bronze pig, the celebrated Floyd of Rosedale. Suddenly, though, the pig is wearing lipstick. The Gophers are 9-0 for the first time since 1904, and people – apparently under the influence – are adding them to the playoff discussion. It would be very Big Ten-like for a team’s magical run to end in slop. Pick: Iowa 15-11
► Indiana at Penn State: Don’t look now, but another upstart is doing strange things. Indiana is 7-2 and ranked for the first time in 25 years. The Nittany Lions declined to derail Minnesota’s whimsical ride last week, but they should put the Hoosiers back in their place. Pick: Penn State 37-20
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