I hate to break it to you, Chad Henne, but how you play in next week’s game will define your year at Michigan.
I know you don’t want to hear it, but with a potential Big Ten Championship on the line, it will probably define the entire team’s season – and certainly coach Carr’s (by the way, it’s funny how I didn’t see any of the “fire Lloyd Carr” people protesting outside the Big House two days ago. My, how things have changed since the last time we watched a game at home.).
But I think, more so than anyone else – even more than Carr or the 10 players on the roster who are actually from the god-awful red state just south of here – your year will be made or broken over a 60-minute stretch next Saturday.
They say the head coach and quarterback are the only two guys on the field who win and lose games, and so it goes. Your predecessor, John Navarre, had to deal with it for three-plus years. Now, unfortunately, it’s your turn.
You don’t want to admit it. I know. Because admitting it would put a lot of pressure on yourself. But from what I’ve seen over the last two years, you like the pressure, which is why I’m here stressing the importance of this game.
At Saturday’s postgame press conference, you were asked if you thought Michigan’s season would be pigeonholed as “good” or “bad” based on this one game.
“It’s a possibility,” you said frankly. “But we can’t look forward towards that. We need to come out with the mindset that we need to win this game. And from what we came from, it’s been a tough road. If we come out with this victory, it will just match our season.”
And boy is that a true statement. At the beginning of the year, people were calling for your head. And to think, people were calling for Matt Gutierrez to take over. After this weekend, that looks pretty silly, considering the offense never punted when you were at the helm and was forced to punt three times with Gutierrez under center.
You’ve had one of those seasons that’s tough to define. Your numbers have been pretty average – your 200 yards per game in the air with a completion percentage around 50 percent rank eighth out of the 11 Big Ten starters. But the one number that sticks out, at least through the first six games, is three – as in the number of losses. So how do you assess your season? Based on statistics? Losses? A BCS game, perhaps?
I think a win over your archrival might just do the trick. After all, a win would at least give you a chance at winning a Big Ten Championship – something that appeared impossible six weeks ago. I’m pretty sure that an 8-3 record would be enough to silence all your critics, considering a 7-3 record has done the same for your coach and his doubters.
You’ve struggled in big games in your career. Although you threw for more than 800 yards and 10 touchdowns last year in games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Texas, your team went just 1-2 in those games.
I think of Nov. 19 as a perfect opportunity for you.
You said this weekend that you were overwhelmed by the crowd at Ohio State last year when you were a freshman signal-caller. That won’t be a problem this time around – the game is in the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium, where you’ve lost just two games in your career. You’ll probably have more than 112,000 people cheering for you instead of rooting for your demise.
You didn’t have much of a chance last year. Though you had a pretty decent day, your counterpart, Troy Smith, shone even brighter. The guy put up almost 400 yards of total offense by himself, and he made you look like, well, a freshman.
But you shouldn’t have to worry about that either. I don’t know if it’s something defensive line coach Steve Stripling did with teaching his players about rush lanes or something Jim Herrmann did with defensive schemes, but the defense doesn’t seem to have problems with mobile quarterbacks or spread offenses anymore. It’s probably the best Michigan defense since I’ve been here (almost – I said almost – makes you think of stories of Charles Woodson and the ’97 squad), and it might be the best defense in the Big Ten. So far this year, it has contained quarterbacks like Drew Stanton, Brett Basanez and Drew Tate. It gave up 17 points to Notre Dame, but it was the only defense in the country that held the Irish to fewer than 31 points. So with a little bit of help, you might be able to do your thing and actually have it work.
Last year, you had Braylon Edwards, and that was all fine and dandy. But when you didn’t have him at the beginning of the year, it was obvious. Passes were overthrown. Timing was off. Receivers were being missed. Now that’s not a problem, either. So you don’t have Edwards? Who cares? You’ve got Jason Avant. You’ve got Steve Breaston. You’ve got Antonio Bass, Mario Manningham and Tyler Ecker. If Mike Hart comes back next week like Carr says he will, then you should have all the weapons you need.
So it looks as if you’re fine. It looks as if everything that used to haunt you has disappeared. The only problem is that it all adds to the pressure. This is going to be the ultimate test, on the biggest stage, against your biggest rival.
Time to show us what you’ve got – and let us judge you.
– Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org