His teammates said he would play. Defensive end Tim Jamison basically guaranteed it, and captain Jake Long said he had “no doubt.” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was more evasive, but no more than usual concerning injuries.
So Wolverine fans, by and large, expected their Heisman Trophy candidate to take the field Saturday against Illinois.
Throughout the week, however, rumors cropped up that running back Mike Hart’s injury was worse than his teammates had previously thought. Nerves rose rapidly, and when No. 20 wasn’t dressed during pre-game warm-ups, whispers started racing. And Hart’s appearance in street clothes finally confirmed the fans’ worst fears.
At least one of the Michigan coaches knew this was coming.
“(I knew) Monday,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said.
But Hart didn’t know until Thursday.
“I know him probably better than he knows himself,” Jackson said. “I knew he would not want to perform unless he could give everything he had. I think he realized he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t cut the way he wanted to yet.”
Carr maintained he didn’t know Hart wouldn’t play until Thursday, saying the injury was day-to-day throughout the week.
Backup running back Brandon Minor suffered a sprained ankle against Purdue as well, and many thought he was less likely to play Saturday than Hart. He didn’t practice on Tuesday, and Carr was pessimistic that he would be available against Illinois.
“We felt like his injury might be a little worse than (Hart’s),” Carr said. “He came back and practiced on Wednesday, he called me at home I think Monday night, and he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to play.’ I never believed he would play until I saw him Wednesday, and he came out and practiced well, and on Thursday he looked even better.”
Minor was still hampered by his injury come game time, though, and sophomore running back Carlos Brown received most of the carries. Brown recorded the first 100-yard game of his career against the Illini, which hadn’t let a runner top the century mark against them all year.
And with quarterback Chad Henne in and out of the game because of a shoulder injury, Hart missing and Minor limited, the Wolverines needed some replacements to take on a bigger load.
“It’s tough having those guys down,” Long said. “But I was really proud of the backups, and the guys behind them really stepped up . Everybody just really was accountable today, and it was a great team effort and a team win.”
Michigan did see some players return Saturday. Jeremy Ciulla made his first start of the season at right guard after missing time from an injury suffered against Appalachian State. Linebacker John Thompson played in limited duty after missing the previous two games.
And the Wolverines could see an important cog return next week as well. After the game, Jackson gave a prognosis on Hart’s injury.
“I’m thinking he’ll be back this week,” Jackson said.
Carr said Hart’s status remained at day-to-day.
“We’ll see next week how it’s going to go,” Hart said. “Hopefully, I’ll be back, but if not, then I won’t.”
Here we go again.
Special Z: Punter Zoltan Mesko had his best game of the season Saturday. He boomed a 67-yard punt to the Illinois 4-yard line on his first kick of the game. He landed three of his four punts inside the 20-yard line and two of them inside the five, averaging 44 net yards on his punts.
But it was his shortest punt of the day that made the real difference.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Illinois returner Kyle Hudson muffed the kick at his own 12-yard line, and long snapper Sean Griffin recovered the ball for the Wolverines. Two plays later, wide receiver Adrian Arrington found fellow receiver Mario Manningham in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-17 lead that Michigan didn’t relinquish.
“That was a great punt,” Carr said. “We were punting with the wind. A lot of times in those situations, you’re going to kick the ball into the end zone . That was simply a great punt, a very difficult punt to handle down in there … it was awful high and it had a good spin on it.”
Errors in judgment: Illinois coach Ron Zook couldn’t have been pleased with the discipline his team showed Saturday. The Illini racked up 10 penalties in the game, costing them 107 yards. They were called for four different personal fouls, two of which gave the Wolverines first downs on plays after they would’ve otherwise had to give the ball back to Illinois.
“You don’t teach facemask and holding penalties, but when you teach guys to be aggressive, it is going to happen,” Zook said. “Playing aggressive and playing hard is good, but up against good football teams, you can’t do some of the things we did and get away with it.”