For many Michigan football fans, the decision boiled down to two statistics.
Chad Henne: 0-2.
Ryan Mallett: 2-0.
Ergo, true freshman Ryan Mallett – he of the cannon arm and quick feet – should start at quarterback for the rest of the season, especially after the Wolverines’ two early losses eliminated them from National Championship contention.
But there’s still this year’s Big Ten championship to play for (along with a trip to the Rose Bowl), and Saturday, Henne showed why he’s still the quarterback Michigan needs.
For the Michigan players and coaches, there was never a doubt about the identity of this team’s leader.
“It’s Chad’s team,” Mallett said, and then repeated, after the Penn State game.
And the response after Henne’s return Saturday after a two-week hiatus echoed Mallett’s sentiments.
“I was happy,” senior captain Jake Long said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a leader for our offense when he gets out there, and he took control and did great for us. I was excited.”
Henne’s orchestrated an 11-play, 65-yard drive that he capped with an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham on the first series of the game. Mallett failed to lead Michigan to a score for the rest of the half, telegraphing passes and missing open receivers. So when Henne indicated that he was physically able to play in the second half, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr made the decision to go with his senior, even with Henne later telling the media he was at just 80 to 85 percent.
The four-year starter backed up his coach’s choice with a strong performance. Henne threw two more touchdowns in the second half, including a bullet to wide receiver Adrian Arrington on a skinny post to give Michigan the lead.
“It was real comfortable,” Arrington said. “(Henne’s) been out there with me since I’ve been here, so I feel real comfortable. He knows his reads a lot better than (Mallett) does, so it’s real comfortable out there.”
Mallett impressed against Notre Dame and Penn State with his arm strength and confidence. After escaping pressure, Mallett didn’t just toss the ball out of bounds. Instead, he looked for either an open receiver or a running lane. Combined with his excitability after touchdowns and the hype surrounding him coming out of high school, Wolverine fans had hope for the post-Henne era.
But there are inherent difficulties in having a freshman quarterback at the helm of an offense.
With Mallett in during the past two games, the majority of drives featured runs on both first and second down and passes almost exclusively on third-and-long.
Mallett also has yet to learn how to consistently put touch on his throws, leading to numerous drops in the past couple games from usually sure-handed receivers.
While Henne’s 18-of-27 with three touchdowns blows Mallett’s 5-for-11 performance out of the water, it is the other ways he changes the offense that make him its requisite leader.
With Henne at quarterback, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord could open up the playbook. Michigan called passes on seven of its first 11 plays of the game, and three consecutive passes to open the second half.
The four-year starter entered Michigan with a rocket resembling Mallett’s, but has learned to tone down some of his passes, making them easier for the receivers to catch.
As an added bonus, the running game improves with Henne, too.
“There’s definitely chemistry, getting the ball, taking handoffs, (Henne) knowing where I’m going to be, pass protection, those kinds of things,” running back Mike Hart said a couple weeks ago. “Especially handoffs. Handoffs are big. I’m the kind of guy that, depending on the defense, I might take (the handoff) wider or I might take it tighter, and it’s up to the quarterback to adjust and get me the ball.”
As Carr indicated, the experience Mallett has gained during his freshman year is invaluable. Starting in a rivalry game against Notre Dame, playing against the vaunted Penn State defense and getting significant time in a conference road game will vastly accelerate Mallett’s learning curve.
But for this veteran Michigan team with its eyes on a Big Ten Championship, the quarterback position is critical. And, as well as Mallett performed in getting wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, Henne is the quarterback that allows this offense to reach its potential – a ceiling we saw glimpses of Saturday.
“Only the people who don’t know much about quarterback play question (Henne),” Carr said. “Because the people who know, (they) know what he is.”
And right now, even at just 80 to 85 percent, Chad Henne is the only Michigan quarterback who knows the way to Pasadena.
– Bromwich can be reached at email@example.com.