Wojo: Buckeyes thrash Spartans, now let the UM rivalry mind games begin

Bob Wojnowski

| The Detroit News

The Buckeyes made their point as expected, despite missing most of their offensive line and their head coach. Justin Fields confirmed he’s magnificent, no matter who’s blocking or coaching, and the scarlet machine steamed on.

Ohio State’s 52-12 thrashing of Michigan State Saturday said more about the Buckeyes than the Spartans, although Mel Tucker might disagree. Michigan State’s first-year coach did a low, angry seethe afterward, saying he was going to be “sick” when he watched the film.

But sorry, this isn’t about the Spartans (2-4) being completely overmatched. This is about Ohio State, which means it’s also about Michigan, which means a lot of people probably will say a lot of reckless stuff leading up to The Game, scheduled for Saturday in Columbus.

Yes, there’s a decent chance the game will be canceled, as Michigan is dealing with its first significant COVID-19 outbreak and called off its game against Maryland. No one knows with certainty if Michigan-OSU will be scratched because we don’t know which players are affected and to what extent. It’s doubtful even fledgling epidemiologist Kirk Herbstreit, who apologized for insinuating Michigan would “wave the white flag,” knows. The latest testing of UM athletes (not just football) produced 14 positives, an uptick. We should know more by Monday, the first day the Wolverines can possibly practice.

The rivalry rhetoric already has begun because Michigan is 2-4 and a scattered mess, while Ohio State is 5-0 and a dominant playoff candidate. Hey, the Spartans took their rightful beating, why won’t the Wolverines?!

Thanks to some early politicking from Herbstreit and OSU AD Gene Smith, the Wolverines appear to be in a tough spot. Gut it out and likely get destroyed, or shut it down and risk getting publicly ripped.

The truth is, that’s a dangerous oversimplification. This is not the season to be playing the passive-aggressive “who’s got courage?” game. Are the Wolverines disrespecting the rivalry if they deem it unsafe to play? Or, are they disrespecting the rivalry if they play with COVID issues that could put others at risk? Basically, is it wrong to play with COVID, and wrong not to?

Six, or maybe fewer

This isn’t up to Jim Harbaugh and Warde Manuel, or Ryan Day and Smith, so everyone can dial down the shrieking and shaming. The medical people will play a large role in assessing how many players can safely participate.

Day would want to play, despite the Buckeyes’ own COVID problems, to pad their playoff credentials, and they’re already four-touchdown favorites. Harbaugh almost certainly would want to play, his competitive nature overriding his realistic outlook. As for the notion Harbaugh’s job hangs in the balance, especially if Michigan is blown out, I’m not convinced. I believe a modest contract extension is being discussed, and there are no clear signs he’s leaving.

And for those desperate to ensure Ohio State gets to the playoff, don’t worry, the Big Ten almost assuredly will alter its rules to allow it. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, who chaired the Big Ten’s return-to-play task force, told The Detroit News this week the six-game requirement to qualify for the Big Ten championship could be waived if Ohio State fell one game short.

Would that be the right and fair thing to do? Of course it would. Hello, have you seen all the random swerving during this pandemic season? The Big Ten would be dumb to deny the Buckeyes if they missed three games due to COVID, and two were out of their control. The Big Ten played this season to save face and regain some of its vast lost revenue, and getting to the playoff is a huge part of it.

In fact, the Big Ten should announce quickly that the six-game standard is flexible, so nobody weaponizes the UM-OSU game and demands it be played for the greater good of the conference. (And to fill that lucrative Saturday noon slot on Fox). I’m sure the Buckeyes would love to see if they can top 52-12 against Michigan. But I bet they’d be fine moving on as long as their title hopes weren’t damaged.

Day wasn’t in East Lansing Saturday because he has COVID, and interim Larry Johnson didn’t miss a beatdown. It was an amazing performance considering the Buckeyes were without 23 players due to injury and COVID. They were missing three offensive line starters, and fill-in center Harry Miller snapped the ball so erratically, Fields was constantly on the run, and not because of Michigan State’s defense.

Tucker’s diagnosis

The Spartans received the most graphic evidence yet of the size of their rebuild. The Buckeyes’ second-stringers rolled on, and Fields threw for 199 yards and ran for 104. Tucker clearly needs to make the switch at quarterback from Rocky Lombardi to Payton Thorne, who was 16-for-25 in relief. But if you want any deeper analysis of this game, sorry.

Tucker will wrap it up for you, with blunt firmness. The Spartans’ performances have alternated between promising (beat Michigan and Northwestern) and putrid (beaten by Rutgers and slammed by Iowa, Indiana and OSU), as they head to Penn State next week.

“We gotta get better faster, because I’m not about this long-term deal,” Tucker said. “We need to get something done now. Recruiting, we need to grind that out and be relentless on that front as well. Because quite frankly, I believe we’re better than this. Some might disagree.”

Michigan State isn’t better than it’s shown, and neither is Michigan. The Buckeyes proved one point and would love to prove another. Asked Saturday if he’d heard anything on the status of the Michigan game, Day said, “No I haven’t.”

Smith has been more vocal on COVID, partly because the Buckeyes have experienced more. They canceled last week’s game at Illinois the night before, while acknowledging their numbers were below the Big Ten’s shut-down threshold. That’s why OSU is in danger of not playing six games. Then this week, Smith suggested Michigan should be able to bounce back, and he was optimistic the game would be played.

“They stopped on Monday, so that gives them a good seven days to try and basically do what we did — make the corrections that need to be made,” Smith said on his podcast. “I think they’ll be back and we should be able to play unless they have a rash that’s uncontrollable.”

Some subtle hypocrisy there. Smith clearly made a choice to scratch the Illinois game not completely driven by COVID numbers. His motive was safety, and he’d be offended if anyone suggested it also was to get players healthier for the stretch drive and not risk an upset. Again, no one distinguishes COVID absences from injury absences.

Same with Michigan. The numbers — whatever they ultimately are — can be a big part of multiple issues, including a roster ravaged by injury. The Wolverines have missed their best two offensive and defensive linemen for weeks, and are dealing with injuries to quarterbacks Cade McNamara and Joe Milton.

This isn’t about taking a whipping or dodging a whipping, as rabid fans will make it. Playing for honor and pride and competitive respect are fine concepts. But when the decision is made this week, they shouldn’t be factors at all, and I suspect they won’t be.

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Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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