Wide receiver Mario Manningham caught his first pass midway through the second quarter Saturday – a 44-yard bomb along the left sideline that put Michigan in position to tie the game at 10.
The catch was magnificent. The junior reached out as far in front of him as he could, using his fingertips to tap the ball back into the air in order to eventually snag it. But Manningham really impressed after the catch.
“Super Mario” has become notorious for his celebrations this season. Against Penn State, he did the Worm in the backfield before time had expired. Against Northwestern the next week, with the Wolverines trailing 16-7, he taunted the Wildcat sideline after an average six-yard run. And against Illinois last week, he celebrated a pass-interference penalty.
But after his circus catch Saturday against Minnesota, things got weird.
There was no fist pump, no posing, not even an exaggerated first-down motion. Nothing.
Manningham simply jogged back to the huddle.
It got stranger.
With Michigan leading 13-10, Manningham hauled in a 48-yard pass on the right sideline on third down. Yet again, there was no celebration by the star.
Following his early fourth-quarter touchdown that effectively ended the game, Manningham finally showed some emotion.
And it wasn’t a me-first, self-centered dance or pose. He was lifted up by his teammates into the air and he celebrated with them in the end zone.
The game, and the past month as a whole, has shown a significant change in the receiver. And the evolution has come in steps.
He struggled the first four weeks of the season, managing more than 70 yards in just one game, and seemed to play lackadaisically at times. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called Manningham out for his sub-par play after the Oregon game, but Manningham didn’t have much of a chance to show his improvement with freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett starting the next two games.
He broke out against Northwestern with a career-high 10 catches, aided by Chad Henne’s return.
Manningham was suspended for the next game against Eastern Michigan for a “violation of team rules,” but continued to elevate his game upon his return. He tallied eight catches for a then-career high 147 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue and followed that up with a nine-catch, 109-yard, two touchdown performance against Illinois.
The final step in the maturation process seemed to come Saturday.
Not only did Manningham have a career-best 162 yards receiving and a touchdown on five catches without a single egotistical expression, but his coach explained some of the change in both demeanor and numbers after the game.
“I think Mario’s been sensational these last three weeks,” Carr said. “I’ve seen this happen to a lot of guys . He played well enough a year ago that, going into this season, he received an inordinate amount of whatever you want to call it, all the All-American, preseason-this, preseason-that, and I think maybe that impacted him a little bit. But I think what I’ve seen here in the last month is really that he’s playing some of his best football.”
Carr continued his analysis of Manningham, saying the receiver learned to realistically assess his play with his position coach Erik Campbell. He also guessed that perhaps Manningham has taken some extra responsibility on his shoulders with freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett forced into duty by injuries to senior Chad Henne.
Those might be reasons for the newfound maturity and the escalation of his performance on the field. Others could include a realization he needed a productive season to guarantee himself NFL millions, that his coach and quarterback had called him out for being a detriment to the team, or that he was benched for the game against Eastern Michigan.
The receiver still doesn’t talk to the press, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the real reason for the change.
But maybe that’s a good thing.
Maybe he’s decided to let his play do the talking.
– Bromwich can be reached at .