Earlier this year, Michigan running back Mike Hart needed a little help – just a little – from his teammates when he guaranteed Michigan would beat Notre Dame.
Next week, it’s only him (and maybe some trainers and coaches) who can make his new words come true.
Hart said Saturday he’ll play next weekend against Michigan State as the Wolverines head into the difficult final stretch of their schedule. In fact, he said, if needed, he probably could have played this week.
“Yeah, I’m playing next week,” Hart said after the game, heading across the field into the tunnel. Later he added: “Yeah, I could have played today.”
As usual, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr hedged his words a bit more than his starting running back. In comments very similar to those leading up to Saturday’s game, he said he is still not certain if Hart or quarterback Chad Henne will play next week.
“I’m optimistic that both of them will be ready to go,” Carr said. “But as I’ve said in the past, it’s day-to-day. I know that they’re both much, much better than they were a week ago, and we’ll see how the week goes.”
Heading into the game against Minnesota, it probably didn’t matter much how either player felt. With the one-win Gophers on the schedule, Michigan wasn’t in a rush to bring the two back.
Plus, it gave the Wolverines another chance to get their younger players some experience.
Filling in admirably for Hart, running backs Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor combined for 289 yards and three touchdowns against the Gopher defense, one of the worst in the country against the run. Filling in not quite as admirably for Henne, quarterback Ryan Mallett over- and underthrew many of his passes, finishing the game 11-for-20 with a touchdown, some of those passes saved by great catches from wide receivers.
“It comes down to, like coach Carr said, the expectation is for the position,” linebacker Shawn Crable said. “If you step in and they’re trusting you to be on the field, then you’re supposed to execute like the person that would be in before you would have.”
Special special teams: It has taken three quarters of the season, but it looks like the much-maligned Michigan special teams unit is coming together. With some great punts, good returns and impressive kicks, the unit looked perhaps its best all season, despite a few miscues.
Punter Zoltan Mesko booted two perfect punts early in the game, bungled only by Charles Stewart failing to stop the ball before it went into the end zone. Wide receiver Greg Mathews returned a punt 19 yards and Carlos Brown a kick for 27, both their longest of the year. Kicker K.C. Lopata kept his stat line unblemished, knocking in two field goals (42, 26) to move to 8-for-8 on the year.
“He really hit that ball well,” Carr said of Lopata’s 42-yarder. “He’s really done a wonderful job. We tried to watch him pregame, kicking into the wind, with the wind, how far, and we felt that was a good kick.”
In Communist Russia . : With the game against the Gophers out of the way, Michigan has seen its last spread offense for the year (at least until its bowl game). Although some Wolverines said they didn’t care what kind of offense they played, others said they’re happy to know some more traditional ones are up next on the schedule.
“Thank God. We’re happy about that,” linebackers coach Steve Szabo said. “I call that Communist football. I’m so tired of it. Good, red-blooded Americans snap the ball, hand it to the guy and have a normal run game or pass game.”
Can-see TV: Michigan’s intrastate battle with Michigan State, which was rumored to be Big Ten Network-bound, was picked up by ABC. The game will be played at 3:30 Saturday afternoon in East Lansing.