Mike Hart shattered the Michigan career rushing record on Saturday by tearing through the Eastern Michigan defense.

But after the game, no juke, spin, stiff arm or any other Hart creation could elude the can’t-believe-we-have-to-ask-this-again question.

Can you tell us why Michigan got off to another slow start?

“No, I can’t,” Hart said. “I don’t know.”

Luckily, while Hart gathered 215 yards, his teammates – resting squarely upon his back – had time to think of excuses.

“It’s difficult when you have 10 guys that are injured,” quarterback Chad Henne said following the 33-22 win.

Against Ohio State, that seems reasonable. Against Northwestern, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But against Eastern Michigan, um, well, how to put this lightly … No!

This is an Eastern Michigan team that lost to Vanderbilt by 23 points. A team that lost to Pittsburgh by 24. In other words, a team that should not trail Michigan by just two points midway through the third quarter.

Yes, redshirt freshman Steve Schilling’s move to right guard created some extra pressure in the backfield. And there were three fill-ins on defense. But despite Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s best try in Saturday’s post-game press conference, injuries just don’t explain the problems that have continually plagued the Wolverines this season.

Injuries are not the reason Michigan keeps throwing away touchdown opportunities. They’re not the reason the defense keeps sleep-walking through the first half. And they’re not the reason Michigan keeps making bad-enough-in-the-first-game-but-inexcusable-midway-through-the-season mistakes.

Henne says a defender hit him while he released the ball on his first interception. OK, but why did the senior throw into double coverage in the first place? And in the third quarter, why did he kill another deep drive with a pick? (Actually, he blamed tight end Carson Butler for that one. Did anyone catch the license plate number on that bus?)

The defense says it knows it can’t keep continue these sluggish starts. But the Wolverines said the same thing last week against Northwestern. Thanks, guys, and O.J. Simpson has a reputation problem. But what are you going to do to fix it?

Carr says offensive tackle Jake Long swears Eastern Michigan jumped offsides on the first extra-point returned for a conversion in Michigan history. But Carr can’t blame anyone but his team and coaches for the 14 players Michigan fielded on one punt. Or the seven silly penalties ranging from an improper formation to a Donovan Warren personal foul. Or the 86-yard kickoff return that almost ended in the Michigan end zone.

At times this season, the offense has looked unstoppable. The Henne-led first drive against Northwestern looked nearly flawless, the three receivers pose a terrific triple threat, and well, Mike Hart is Mike Hart. But Henne can’t keep making mistakes on the field, wide receiver Mario Manningham can’t keep making them off it and Michigan needs a reliable back-up halfback before Hart’s legs fall off.

At times this season, the defense has looked impenetrable. Look no further than Saturday with cornerback Morgan Trent’s break-ups, defensive lineman Brandon Graham’s bone-crushing sack and safety Brandent Englemon’s fumble-inducing hit. But the Big Ten season brings much stiffer competition than Eastern Michigan and South Bend Junior High, and the defense can’t keep relying on a late-game surge.

And at times this season, the special teams has looked … actually, let’s just say they’ll have to work on that.

Much like on Saturday, when Hart stuck up for Manningham in his press conference, the senior running back has covered up his teammate’s mistakes all seasons. Six consecutive 100-yard games will do that.

But when Michigan faces a night road game against an Illinois team looking much scarier each week, Wisconsin in the terrifying Camp Randall Stadium and, of course, Ohio State, there are going to be a lot more questions.

And, as Michigan learned twice early this season, there are some things that even Hart can’t answer.

Herman can be reached at jaherman@umich.edu.

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