EAST LANSING – Days before Garrett Rivas kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime on Saturday, Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson had good reason to believe in a Wolverine victory over Michigan State. It was the middle of last week, and sophomore Mike Hart – who had missed the previous three games with a hamstring injury – uttered something Jackson won’t soon forget.
“He told me, ‘Coach, don’t baby me. Let me go,’ ” Jackson said.
Despite the coaching staff’s caution in holding Hart out of last weekend’s loss to Wisconsin, the star tailback convinced head coach Lloyd Carr, Jackson and the team’s medical personnel that he was ready. By the time Michigan State had been removed from the ranks of the unbeaten, it would’ve been hard to convince anybody at Spartan Stadium otherwise.
Hart churned out 218 rushing yards on 36 carries in his first action since the opening minutes of Michigan’s game against Notre Dame on Sept. 10. It was the third-highest ground-yardage total in Hart’s young career, and it came on the second-most carries he had ever received in a single game.
“He’s a difference-maker,” Jackson said. “Whenever we have him, we’re a different football team. When he doesn’t play, it hurts us. – He played a lot of snaps today. I wouldn’t intend on playing him that much, but he’s a warrior. And that’s something that warriors do.”
It took all of three plays for Hart to make his presence felt. After Michigan gained nine yards on its first two plays from scrimmage in the first quarter, Hart took a handoff from quarterback Chad Henne, burst through a hole in the middle of the line, and broke an arm tackle. The Syracuse, N.Y., native ran left in open space, and by the time he was finally dragged down by Michigan State’s Sir Darean Adams, he had picked up a career-high 45 yards. Despite his record-breaking 1,455-yard freshman output, Hart never topped 34 yards on a single carry in 2004, and he made sure the Spartans knew he was excited about his new mark.
“I was just ready to play,” Hart said. “When I broke that run, I just wanted to tell them, you know, ‘We’re coming. We’re playing today. It’s not last week, it’s not the week before that. We came to play, and we came to win.’ “
He made his point. It was clear that Hart was back. And he was everywhere.
The runner’s nine-yard gain on the Wolverines’ next series set up Henne’s 43-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Mario Manningham. On the scoring play, a play-action fake to Hart confused some Michigan State defenders and created more room downfield for the catch-and-run. The sophomore converted eight first downs, including two on third-and-one and two on fourth-and-one.
“(Hart) has a great instinct, and he is just such a fighter,” Carr said. “I did not expect him to play, or certainly to run the football as many times as he did. He is a great football player.”
Hart was even prominently involved on a defensive play. When Michigan State defensive tackle Domata Peko recovered a Henne fumble and rumbled 74 yards down the field for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, it was Hart who chased the 320-pounder to the other end of the turf, fighting off Spartan safety Otis Wiley and linebacker Kaleb Thornhill before attempting to trip up Peko with a dive across the goal line. Though the 5-foot-9, 193-pound Hart was hurdled by the lumbering lineman, it wasn’t for lack of effort that Michigan State picked up six points.
“He brings a different dimension to the team,” fifth-year senior Pierre Woods said. “He can do everything. Mike Hart is like Superman. He runs with heart, and that’s what he’s all about.”
Hart amazed onlookers by surpassing his new career-long run in the fourth quarter. On the Wolverines’ first offensive play of the frame, Hart burned the Spartans with a 64-yard carry. Five plays later, he kept his balance with a hand on the ground, maintaining his momentum and willing himself to dive forward. Hart put Michigan ahead by stretching the ball over the goal line for a one-yard score. On the Wolverines’ final drive in regulation, Hart carried the ball 11 times in 13 Michigan plays before Rivas missed a 27-yard field goal. Regardless of the drive’s outcome, it was obvious whom the Wolverines were looking to with the game on the line.
“I want the ball in my hands at the end of the game,” Hart said. “The coaches knew I wanted it, (and) they did a great job giving it to me. The line did a great job, and we just pushed it downfield.”
Said offensive coordinator Terry Malone: “He adds more than just yards to our team. He adds a confidence and a spirit. He’s really special, (and) it rubs off on everybody else.”