Michigan running back Mike Hart’s teammates said at Monday’s press conference that he will be sufficiently recovered from injury to play this Saturday at Illinois.
But it was a scary couple of days.
When Hart hobbled off the field late in the first half of last weekend’s game against Purdue, nobody cared Michigan had a giant lead against a team considered a Big Ten contender. Nobody cared the Wolverines’ defense, which had struggled against Northwestern and Eastern Michigan, had shut down the conference’s highest scoring offense. And certainly nobody cared that the offense, slow-starting in recent games, had tallied its highest scoring first quarter of the season.
The cheers for Mario Manningham’s touchdown catch that completed the drive after Hart left were noticeably subdued.
“Anytime you see a guy get hurt, your heart stops,” Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “You feel for them and for the whole team.”
All the fans wanted to know was whether their star running back and Heisman Trophy candidate was going to be OK.
So when he came back to the Michigan sideline late in the third quarter, albeit in street clothes and with a slight limp, the fans, coaches and team breathed a collective sigh of relief. When Hart told his teammates that he would play next week at Illinois, they relaxed. And when Tim Jamison and Jake Long essentially guaranteed at Monday’s press conference that Hart would be in uniform in Champaign, Wolverine nation knew it could breathe easy.
“He was still happy,” defensive end Tim Jamison said. “He wasn’t shrieking in pain or anything like that. He’s going to play this week. That’s what I expect. He’s going to play.”
Said captain Jake Long: “I have no doubt in my mind he’ll play. I saw him (Monday), he looked good, so I have no doubt.”
With the favorable prognosis, Michigan fans can reflect on the complete game they saw from the Wolverines in their 48-21 blowout victory over the Boilermakers Saturday.
The first-string defense allowed just seven points, and those came after Purdue recovered a Chad Henne fumble on the Michigan 5-yard line. The Boilermakers (1-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) entered the game averaging 39 points and 458 yards per game, but against Michigan, they managed just 170 yards before garbage time.
The Wolverines (3-0, 5-2) wanted to take away the run game, and they did early, allowing Purdue just 20 yards on the ground in the first half. After Michigan stuffed their rushing attack and gained a lead, the Boilermakers became one-dimensional. The Wolverines could attack quarterback Curtis Painter, sacking him twice and forcing him to throw two interceptions.
“That’s one thing (defensive coordinator) Ron (English) talked to the defense about all week,” secondary coach Vance Bedford said. “We wanted to get after (Painter) early. The first play of the game we blitzed. We wanted to set the tempo for the guys – get them going playing fast, playing hard, and I think it carried on throughout the game.”
Four Purdue turnovers gave the Michigan offense a short field to score, and each time, the Wolverines converted for a touchdown, thrice within just two plays. After Michigan’s first drive faltered, the ensuing punt bounced off Boilermaker Terrell Vinson and safety Stevie Brown recovered the live ball at Purdue’s 32-yard line. Two plays later, a Henne bomb to wide receiver Mario Manningham gave the Wolverines a 7-0 lead.
And after nickel back Brandon Harrison intercepted Painter late in the second quarter, Manningham hauled in another long ball on the very next play for his second touchdown.
“I threw it up there, hoping that Mario would go get it,” Henne said. “Not to bust on Mario, but he’s not a guy like Braylon Edwards to go up and grab the ball. It definitely instilled some confidence in me and him for (him) going to get the ball and making that play.”
The junior receiver finished with eight catches for 147 yards and those two scores, making for his best game of the season just one week after he sat out with a suspension. Henne tallied 264 yards and two touchdowns, completing 21-of-28 passes in his best game of the year. And Hart, playing just one half, gained 102 yards and extended his streak of consecutive 100-yard games to seven – a new Michigan record.
With the offense and defense both finally performing up to their potential, Michigan produced its most complete, impressive game Saturday, leading 41-7 when the starters exited. And going into Champaign to play Illinois in a night game this Saturday, the Wolverines could use a similar performance to continue their five-game winning streak and their pursuit of a Big Ten Championship.
“We knew when we had those two non-league losses that we still had the Big Ten Championship to look forward to,” Henne said. “For us to be up there, we have to play our best game, keep improving on this game and know what helped us win this game to continue our success.”