Niyo: College football spotlight shines on state today

John Niyo
The Detroit News

If it’s about the “sight lines,” as Jim Harbaugh suggests, then today is also about your vantage point.

Because with three top-10 teams in two pivotal matchups in this state today — the kickoffs separated by 3-1/2 hours on the TV grid and perhaps a 60-minute drive on a map — the eyes of college football will be fixed on more than just “The Game” in Ann Arbor.

They’ll also be watching what happens in East Lansing, where Michigan State has a chance to steal one last victory from either Michigan or Ohio State — two teams the Spartans have already beaten on their own turf in dramatic fashion — and pave the Big Ten’s path to the college football playoff.

A berth in the Big Ten title game hangs in the balance, along with so many other emotions, as Michigan State hosts Penn State at 3:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium. And after last week’s stunning result in Columbus, where the Spartans upset the defending national champs on a last-second kick, “this is honestly a bigger game,” junior tackle Jack Conklin says.

“If we win this game, we go to the (Big Ten) championship,” he added, not that any explanation was really necessary. “And if we lose, who knows where we’re going?”

That uncertainty only adds to the earlier intrigue, though, because everyone knows what’s going on in Ann Arbor, where Harbaugh began this season answering a question about the national spotlight, and Michigan reclaiming its place in it. In a way, with his Thanksgiving-style analogy, he did a pretty fair job of foreshadowing this season, one that began high on hype and low on expectations in Ann Arbor.

“You want to be at the big-boy table,” Harbaugh explained before the Wolverines’ opener at Utah. “There is another table. It’s over there in the kitchen for those that aren’t seated at the big-persons’ table. And if somebody wants to go over there, nobody’s going to be upset with them if they do.”

Michigan up for beating archrival, reviving its legacy

Well, Michigan sure feels like its back at the big-boy table now. And with Harbaugh striking all those nostalgic pressure points for the maize-and-blue faithful this fall — joining the annual “grave walk” Tuesday to pay tribute to the past was another smash hit — he’s not the only one waking up today full of anticipation for that noon kickoff in Ann Arbor.

“Even better than Christmas” is how Harbaugh described his childhood feelings about the Ohio State rivalry. And this game presents a tremendous opportunity, no doubt, as Michigan celebrates Senior Day with a huge group of fourth- and fifth-year players possibly playing their final home game at the Big House.

Bo vs. Woody, Part II

Yet only one of them, linebacker Desmond Morgan, has ever played in a win over the Buckeyes. That came back in 2011, when Denard Robinson led the Wolverines to victory in Brady Hoke’s first season as coach against an Ohio State team led by interim coach Luke Fickell. And this week when someone asked senior co-captain Joe Bolden, an Ohio native, if this was the game he’d been wating for, he nodded his head.

“Yeah, for four years, you could say,” he replied.

Today, Harbaugh gets his first crack at the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer, who was born in the same Toledo hospital as Harbaugh a half-century ago, barely six months apart. And though both coaches have brushed aside attempts to paint this as a new Ten-Year War, despite all the connections to Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes — “I’ll be standing over there on the sidelines blocking and tackling nobody,” Harbaugh reminded us — the parallels are there.

Senior class leaves its stamp on MSU football program

Then again, so are the Spartans, who find themselves on the verge of a third trip to the Big Ten title game in five years, something only Wisconsin has done. Beat Penn State, and not only will this Michigan State senior class tie a school record with its 42nd victory but Dantonio will become the first coach in Big Ten history with five 11-win seasons in six years.

“But the best thing that we can do right now is focus on Penn State,” the coach insisted earlier this week. “Then everything else sort of works out. Just do what you do, and good things happen.”

What happens next is easy to get caught up in for Michigan State fans. A trip to Indianapolis to face an undefeated Iowa team would be next, with the Big Ten champ likely to earn a spot in the four-team national playoff. That was the goal back in September, and that the goal is still within reach — even after that bitter loss at Nebraska a few weeks ago — says a lot about senior leadership on this team.

‘It’s a crazy game’

“I think they know what’s on the line,” said Mark Snyder, the Spartans’ special teams coordinator, after his unit limited Ohio State to a mere 132 total yards last week.

But what happens if quarterback Connor Cook isn’t able to play today with that injured shoulder? What if Penn State’s pass rush — or possibly Christian Hackenberg, with a couple of young playmakers — decides to crash the party?

“I mean, anything can happen,” said Bolden, when asked about the possibilities down the road should Michigan win its game. “Penn State’s a good football team. They can go up into East Lansing and they can play lights out and win that football game. You never know. That’s the great thing about college football. … It’s a crazy game.”

And crazy it might look, whether it’s taking a hammer to a buckeye in a cemetery or going nuts on the field after kicking the Buckeyes where it hurts, that’s what this rivalry weekend is all about: It’s about putting everyone in their place.