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ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

It's almost a Michigan miracle

Wolverines and Spartans square off this week in a battle of top-20 teams, with coaches who have made different kinds of comebacks.

October 06, 2010|Chris Dufresne

You can try to plot out a season until you're Boise State blue in the face, but the joy is running smack-dab into things you never see coming.

We offer this week No. 17 Michigan State (5-0) at No. 18 Michigan (5-0), a flower that sprouted from a dump.

It would have been maize-boggling a month ago to think this Big Ten Conference stinker in Ann Arbor would have implications beyond the campus police station or an NCAA appeals board.

Michigan State started the year with seven players suspended for the Alamo Bowl in the aftermath of a brawl at a residence hall. The Spartans exited a 6-7 campaign looking to get into witness protection — not on ABC.

But then Michigan State defeated Notre Dame on Sept. 18, in overtime, on a trick play — "Little Giants," by Coach Mark Dantonio, who soon suffered a little heart attack.

Suddenly, it was Babe Ruth swatting a home run for a kid in the hospital, with Michigan State defeating Wisconsin last week while Dantonio was sending text messages from his infirmary bed to his defensive coordinator in the press box.

Dantonio checked out of Sparrow Hospital on Monday in time for his weekly news conference where he announced, "I'm not going to miss Michigan week. … I'm not going to miss it."

It was enough to make you go rent "Brian's Song."

Dantonio was hoping to coach against Wisconsin last week until a blood clot in his leg sent him back to the hospital. He expects to work this week's game, with doctors' permission, from the press box.

The fact Dantonio says he feels good makes this a feel-good weekend.

Michigan State's improbable public relations reversal is matched only by Michigan, once led by Jim Harbaugh, the kid who would become "Captain Comeback."

Now the Wolverines may have Coach Comeback.

There was not an employee in America on a hotter seat than third-year Michigan man Rich Rodriguez, who seemed on the precipice of dismissal after misleading a storied franchise to a 5-7 record last year. If losing wasn't bad enough, Michigan was also cheating, breaking NCAA rules for practice-time limits.

Rodriguez isn't in the clear yet — his team started 4-0 last year before collapsing — but he somehow located his career repair kit. His decision to start sophomore Denard Robinson at quarterback over last year's starter, Tate Forcier, has thus far proven to be a stroke of genius. Or, "Why didn't I think of this earlier!"

It was like stumbling into Jackie Robinson. Robinson has run and passed his way into top position early in the Heisman Trophy race and has already become the first player to twice rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a game. Robinson needs only 95 rushing yards to top 1,000 for the season and 87 to eclipse 2,000 total yards.

"I guess I'm in the right place at the right time right now," Robinson said this week on a Big Ten teleconference. "Right coaches, right place, right teammates."

Michigan State and Michigan have come a long way fast when you consider the only team from the state that had votes in the Associated Press preseason poll was Central Michigan.

The pressure is still on Rodriguez. Michigan hasn't defeated Michigan State in football or basketball in more than 1,000 days — not that Spartans students are keeping note of that.

"We don't have a countdown clock to Michigan State," said Rodriguez, representing the school still leading the all-time series, 67-30-5.

Rodriguez is just happy, for now, the clock's not ticking on him.

Blitz package

USC and Stanford losses last weekend derailed what would have made history: consecutive regular-season visits to Pacific 10 Conference campuses by ESPN's "GameDay," which was in Oregon last week. "GameDay," college football's preeminent pregame show, has set up camp in Pac-10 cities only 14 times in 192 regular-season trips since 1993. USC, with six, leads the Pac-10 in "GameDay" home visits, followed by Oregon with five. "GameDay's" other Pac-10 visits were to Oregon at UCLA in 1998, USC at Arizona State in 2005 and Oregon at Arizona in 2009.

Pac-10 athletic directors are meeting this week in San Francisco to work out details for scheduling and a divisional format in advance of next year's expansion to 12 schools. Final decisions are not expected until the conference chancellors meet later this month.

Colorado at Missouri this week will commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the controversial "Fifth Down" call that helped Colorado prevail on its way to a share of the 1990 national title. Colorado scored the winning touchdown with no time left on fifth-and-goal from the one after officials failed to change the down marker from second to third. Lead official J.C. Louderback told the Boulder Daily Camera this week, "I live it over and over again every year."

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