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Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: The Game is back, in all its nasty, boorish Buckeye glory

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Ann Arbor — Here we are again, back to it being The Game instead of tHe gAMe. Michigan and Ohio State took a much-needed break from their famous rivalry last year when the Wolverines graciously waived their participation rights so the Buckeyes could rest up for the playoff. They’re scheduled to resume competition this Saturday in a titanic clash of top-five powers, and thank goodness the animosity is back. 

You might recall, Buckeye boosters recklessly accused Michigan of waving the white flag last December, as if COVID was a made-up conspiracy to deprive Ohio State of another 62-39 victory. Everyone knows the Wolverines only wave white tissues while crying about officiating atrocities, such as having a touchdown taken away based on a half-second clip of a grainy replay video. Some people are still mad at Michigan for merely suggesting the refs wore scarlet-and-gray underwear five years ago when Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett did or didn’t cross a particular yard line.

The rivalry certainly has crossed the line at times, and Ohio State’s foolish insistence on winning 15 of the past 16 threatens to devalue The Game. There’s no let-up in those crazy Buckeyes. Ryan Day was furious last summer when Jim Harbaugh reportedly said something mean to him on a conference call. Day then told people the Buckeyes would “hang 100” on Michigan. Alas, the game was cancelled and Ohio State indeed was well-rested for its four-touchdown pummeling by Alabama.

The Buckeyes have been stewing and brewing ever since. In preparation for the showdown between No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) and No. 5 Michigan (10-1) in the Big House, Day hung half a hundred on Michigan State last week — in the first half. Perhaps he got his Michigans mixed up.

Or maybe he was just warming up. The Buckeyes have a fine quarterback named C.J. Stroud who ruthlessly snatched the Heisman out of Kenneth Walker III’s hands. They also have a half-dozen super-fast receivers slated to play in the NFL as early as the following weekend.

More: Five years ago, J.T. Barrett's 4th-down surge vs. Michigan was not short on controversy

Michigan opted to warm up a few weeks ago by blowing a 16-point lead against Michigan State. If the Wolverines build a 16-point lead Saturday, Harbaugh will be awarded a game ball at the next timeout.

It’s actually pretty cruel what the Spartans have done to diminish The Game. First, they needlessly rallied to beat Michigan 37-33, thus inflating their confidence and Mel Tucker’s worth. Then by going paws up in the 56-7 loss, they allowed Buckeye starters to hit the practice field for Michigan while backups played the second half. They also damaged the Wolverines’ credentials, flipping their “good loss” to “unforgivable humiliating loss.”

The only person happier than Day was playoff committee chairman Gary Barta, who took a ton of grief for suggesting UM might be better than MSU, actual game tape notwithstanding. Barta was lambasted for noticing the Spartans’ pass defense was last in the country, and that was before Stroud threw for 929 yards against them.

It’s rivalry week all across college football, with so many classics. You have Bedlam (Okie vs. Okie St.), the Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington St.), the Apple Bowl (iPhone 13 vs. iPhone 13 Pro), the Egg Bowl (Mississippi vs. Other Mississippi), the Rotten Egg Bowl (Maryland vs. Rutgers), the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Players Alabama Didn’t Recruit), the Iron-Deficiency Bowl (Northwestern vs. Illinois), and of course, the Extension Bowl (Mel Tucker vs. James Franklin).

That last one features Michigan State against Penn State, with the Land Grant Trophy normally the prize. But this year in East Lansing, the winner will be awarded one of those gigantic cardboard checks with lots of commas and zeroes. Franklin signed his 10-year extension, well-deserved for going 10-11 in his last 21 Big Ten games, and Michigan State just finished its $95-million deal with Tucker.

There was a delay in getting it done, which is odd. It couldn’t be that complicated, other than explaining to faculty and administrators why it’s not gluttonous for a coach with an 11-7 record in two seasons, and it’s not their money anyway so shut the (bleep) up. With well-heeled alum Mat Ishbia, there was only one T to cross and the i’s got dotted by the OSU band.

MSU’s humbling loss in Columbus at least guaranteed the UM-OSU winner would go to the Big Ten Championship Game. (Memo to Michigan: It’s an event played annually somewhere in Indiana). But the Wolverines can’t keep asking everyone else to do their dirty work, and after eight straight losses to the Buckeyes, they finally seem determined to crank it up. Harbaugh is 0-5 in the rivalry and it’s probably time to win a big game. And by “big game,” fans apparently mean “not Wisconsin, not Nebraska, not Penn State, not Northern Illinois, but nice try.”

Fair enough. To beat your rival, you sort of have to be your rival, as gross as it is. The Buckeyes treat the Wolverines as if they’re the embodiment of arrogance and pure evil, while the Wolverines dismiss the Buckeyes as simple dopes. Yes, there’s a passion gap that UM must close.

OSU is obsessed with “that school up North,” saying it as if “school” is a dirty word. They run drills all season specifically for the Wolverines and they have a countdown clock to keep track of when it’s time to beat them again.

This season, Harbaugh has talked openly about wanting to start defeating rivals, and a sign in the UM weight room reads, “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?” The answer for almost two decades: “Uh, not really sure.” The Wolverines even started calling their weekly extra-physical practice session the “Beat Ohio” drill. No, it does not feature defensive backs chasing receivers 10 yards behind them.

With his pointy hairline and extra-dark black beard that absolutely isn’t dyed, Day looks like a villain from a cheap ‘80s movie, and he plays the role slyly. But here’s a little message for Day: Don Brown is not walking through that stadium tunnel. Harbaugh replaced his predictable blitz-happy coordinator with some youngster named Mike Macdonald, and the results have been impressive, so far.

Maybe it’s time for Michigan to crank it up in every way, even the really dumb ways. You know, add some fake self-importance and call yourself The Michigan University. Or try Xing out all the O’s, which might confuse pot-bellied Buckeye fans trucking into our pot-holey state when they see “Rad Wrk Ahead” signs mile after mile. Get our fine law-enforcement folks involved too. Have troopers line up at the state border to stop Ohio cars and give them a rigorous quiz to get in.

Question: State your name.

Buckeye: “OHIO State! Damn right wooooo! O! H!”

It’ll be good to have the pageantry back, including the OSU band’s famed script Ohio with its thrilling finale, when a Columbus car-dealership owner in a business suit high-steps out to dot the i. New licensing agreements and all.

This finally could be the year for the Wolverines because Harbaugh has good players in the trenches and tough runners and a smart quarterback and all sorts of renewed vigor and motivation and … aw hell. I can’t say it until I see it.

Pick: Ohio State 38-27

One other pick

►Penn State at Michigan State: The Spartans (9-2) have so wildly exceeded expectations, they’re playing with “house money.” Ninety-five million dollars later, we now know what that means. Tucker has done great things, reviving the Woodshed moniker for Spartan Stadium and calling the student section the Deep Pockets. The Spartans have tried so hard, they’re now tired and achy. Tucker will be the first to say there are no excuses, and the second to say he needs more uninjured players. Penn State is only 7-4 but the over-under line on receiving yards by star Jahan Dotson has been charitably set at 286. The Spartans may have the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the foreseeable future, but they’re not wrestling the Land Grant out of Franklin’s ink-stained hands. A signature victory indeed. Pick: Penn State 24-17

Twitter: bobwojnowski