CHAMPAIGN — Most running backs are
commended for breaking tackles. But Mike Hart goes beyond breaking
tackles. Mike Hart breaks piles.

Bob Hunt
Michigan fan Jake Ruud — who hails from Chicago — taunts members of the Illinois student section on Saturday. (TONY DING/Daily)
Bob Hunt

As Michigan earned possession, trailing by one in the third
quarter, Hart took the ball and looked like he was going to be
taken down in the backfield. With two Fighting Illini defenders
after him, Hart pushed through the heap and broke free. A few yards
later, he was met by another group. He got through them, too.

All of a sudden, what was supposed to be a two-yard loss became
an eight-yard gain. What’s truly amazing, though, is that
these occurrences have become routine. On a day when the Michigan
passing game was subpar, the 5-foot-9 true freshman carried the
offense. He juked by and bowled over defenders all day, carrying
the ball 40 times for 239 yards. He broke the Michigan freshman
running record which he set — last week.

“He wants the football,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr
said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

At this time last year, Hart was the king of the central New
York high school football world. He broke the national high school
record for touchdowns, but competed in the Empire State’s
smallest division. Because of his lack of height and prep
competition, many critics outside the program thought that he was
going to redshirt.

But Hart has become a cornerstone of the Michigan offense, and
his importance will only continue to increase during the regular
season’s final four games. The Wolverines face two road games
that will decide the fate of their season in West Lafayette and
Columbus. Against Purdue, the Wolverines are going to have to keep
quarterback Kyle Orton and his offense off the field. Against Ohio
State, they are going to have to wear down the Buckeye defense.

That is something that Chad Henne, Braylon Edwards and the rest
of the Michigan passing attack will be unable to do. While Henne
has made incredible strides and should receive praise for how he
has stepped into the starting role, he cannot be expected to carry
the team. As a freshman quarterback, he can’t be expected to
be consistent every week while he’s developing. One can
figure that if the Wolverines find themselves up a touchdown next
Saturday with six minutes to go, that there will be no hesitation
as to who will be getting the ball.

While Hart is still developing as a running back, he has shown
over the past few weeks that he and the line can control the ball
and the offense. In fact, during the first four games of the Big
Ten season, Hart has run for 155 yards more than Chris Perry did
during the same stretch last year against the same four teams. And
Perry was a senior and Heisman Trophy finalist.On Saturday,
Henne’s timing was off and the howling wind made throwing the
ball even more difficult. So, as Michigan found itself down to a
team that had not won a Big Ten game since 2002, it went to Hart
and the offensive line to get the offense going. Hart got the ball
again and again, as often as four times in a row. On the drive in
the third quarter when Michigan scored the eventual game-winning
touchdown, Henne threw just two passes. Hart ran the ball six
times. Two drives earlier, Hart got the ball seven times.

Illinois tried to defend this plan by stacking eight or nine
guys in the box — Edwards was left in single coverage the
entire game — but the Fighting Illini couldn’t stop the
runner the Michigan offensive line jokingly calls
“Midget.”

Hart often gets asked about his lack of height, as he looks
diminutive in the huddle, standing with his offensive colleagues.
But Hart uses his small frame to his advantage. He runs low, so
opponents often can’t see him running out of the backfield.
When linebackers do see him, he has all the leverage and is able to
win the fight for more yardage.

Hart showed his abilities on his one touchdown run of the day,
when he took the ball from four yards out and fought through the
goalline pile. Although he seemed to be down at first glance, Hart
used his strength and balance to stay on top of the pile and placed
the ball on the goalline.

The freshman runner, however, has yet to go through the rigors
of a complete season. Anytime anyone asks Hart about how he is
feeling after getting the ball time and time again, he emphatically
says that he feels good and that he has no concern of breaking
down. Instead of focusing on how his game could diminish, Hart
looks at how his game could be improved.

“I still haven’t gone the distance yet for a fifty
yarder,” Hart said. “And that’s what I need to
get done.”

There is no sign that Hart will break down as of now, which is
imperative for the Wolverines because the time when they will need
him the most is still ahead.

 

Bob Hunt can be reached at
“mailto:bobhunt@umich.edu”>bobhunt@umich.edu.

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