College Sports

Big Game Hunting: Michigan — out of excuses — sets sights on Badgers and beyond

To be a Harbaugh is, it seems, to have extrasensory gifts for understanding football. That’s certainly the case when it comes to seven-year-old Katie Harbaugh, daughter of Michigan coach Jim.

“Let me put it to you this way,” Harbaugh said. “[Katie] plays no sports, doesn’t want to play sports, doesn’t want to be involved in sports — she’s doing Girl Scouts — but even Katie says [our] quarterback is playing very well.”

Actually, it doesn’t take a Harbaugh to recognize what transfer QB Shea Patterson is doing for the Wolverines. His eye-opening athleticism and efficient production have brought long-sought balance — with a flare for the dangerous — to an offense that no longer lives in the shadows of the Michigan defense.

By the way, that defense still is extraordinary. The Wolverines lead all teams nationally with only 230.5 yards allowed per game.

With Shea Patterson at quarterback, Jim Harbaugh has his best chance to win big at Michigan. (AP/Paul Sancya)

And maybe that’s what makes No. 15 Wisconsin (+9) at No. 12 Michigan (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7) such a standout matchup: It’s a big game the well-rounded Wolverines — no excuses — ought to win.

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Heading into this season, when asked if his program was overdue to flip the big-game switch, Harbaugh repeated a terse formula: “We need to improve. That will lead to success, which will lead to championships.” But this is a coach who is a combined 1-5 at his alma mater against bitter rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. Those opponents, along with Penn State, lurk on the remaining schedule.

If the Wolverines can beat Wisconsin — whose star running back, Jonathan Taylor, leads the nation with 169.8 rushing yards per game — they’ll have reason to believe that anything is possible the rest of the way.

Improvement. Success. Even a Big Ten championship.

One potential edge for the home team: the legs of Patterson, who has a knack for keeping plays alive that could come in extra-handy against a Badgers defense that has struggled to create consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Young Katie might even call it the key to the game. Wolverines 24, Badgers 17.

Four more Saturday games of intrigue:

No. 2 Georgia (-7½) at No. 13 LSU (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): The Bulldogs are lined up for another run at the playoff. The Tigers are one of the most improved teams in the SEC and can’t be discounted at Tiger Stadium, where 100,000-plus fans will be ready to lose their minds.

I know what you’re thinking. They lost them a long time ago. Georgia by a field goal.

No. 7 Washington (-3) at No. 17 Oregon (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Huskies have won two straight over the Ducks by a combined score of — maybe you’d better sit down — 108-24. Look, I warned you to sit down. Huskies display their superiority more modestly this time, but it’s enough.

Michigan State (+13½) at No. 8 Penn State (2:30 p.m., BTN): After last week’s loss at home to Northwestern, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio basically vowed that his team would bounce back. That’s not the same thing as pulling off one of the upsets of the season in college football. Nittany Lions in a close one.

No. 19 Colorado (+7) at USC (9:30 p.m., FS1): Why doesn’t anybody seem to want to believe that the unbeaten Buffs are for real? Here’s something to think about, though: Colorado is 0-7 against the Trojans since joining the Pac-12. Here’s another thing: The Trojans had two weeks to prepare for this one. Sorry, Buffs, but you’re going down again — 28-24 sounds about right.

My favorite favorite: No. 10 UCF (-4½) at Memphis (2:30 p.m., ESPN2). The Knights have won 18 straight games by at least seven points. Granted, they needed two overtimes to get there last season against the Tigers, but they got there, didn’t they?

My favorite underdog: Arkansas (+7) vs. Mississippi (6:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Rebels lost by 55 to Alabama and by 29 to LSU. They can pile up the points, but they’re not stopping anybody. This is the week first-year Hogs coach Chad Morris — an impressive offensive strategist — has been waiting for.

Last week: 4-2 straight-up; 3-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 29-11 straight-up; 22-17-1 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

NEBRASKA AT NORTHWESTERN

The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7, 720-AM.

The records: Nebraska 0-5, 0-3 Big Ten; Northwestern 2-3, 2-1 Big Ten.

The storyline: Fans of a certain age will remember coaches Scott Frost and Pat Fitzgerald starring at their alma maters over two decades ago. Nebraska’s Frost, in his first season after leaving UCF, undoubtedly would be more surprised by what has become of his beloved school’s program. Can promising Huskers freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez throw the Wildcats defense for a loop? He’s getting better all the time.

The line: Wildcats by 4½.

Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 31-24.

PITTSBURGH AT NO. 5 NOTRE DAME

The facts: 1:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.

The records: Pittsburgh 3-3, 2-1 ACC; Notre Dame 6-0.

The storyline: Which Panthers will show up? Because the ones who’ve beaten Georgia Tech and Syracuse this season are dangerous. Watch out for running back Qadree Ollison, who rumbled for 192 yards against Syracuse last weekend. Then again, Irish back Dexter Williams has been pretty spectacular himself. Big edge along the lines of scrimmage for the home team.

The line: Irish by 21.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 48-24.

PURDUE AT ILLINOIS

The facts: 2:30 p.m., FS1, 670-AM.

The records: Purdue 2-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Illinois 3-2, 1-1 Big Ten.

The storyline: Would you believe the Illini already have rushed for more yards in 2018 than they did all last season? That’s a testament to the work backs Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein have put in behind a slowly improving offensive line, but it’s also a reminder of how down-and-out Lovie Smith’s program was before this season’s mini-surge. The Boilermakers are struggling to make their marks themselves, but they’ve played better than their record indicates. Surprised by the lopsided point spread? Don’t be.

The line: Boilermakers by 10½.

Greenberg’s pick: Purdue, 34-20.

OHIO at NORTHERN ILLINOIS

The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN+, 560-AM.

The records: Ohio 3-2, 1-0 MAC; NIU 3-3, 3-0 MAC.

The storyline: The stats don’t paint a complete picture, but it’s certainly noteworthy that the Bobcats rank near the top of the league in total offense and at the bottom in total defense — essentially a flip-flop of the Huskies’ situation. NIU will try to dominate with its running game and create havoc with its pass rush. Anything less, and the Bobcats could go off on the scoreboard.

The line: Huskies by 4.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 34-31.