That uneasy feeling in fans’ stomachs with Michigan’s defensive struggles late in the game wasn’t the only stimulus making its comeback on Saturday.
Three weeks after undergoing successful knee surgery to replace a torn meniscus, crowd favorite Mario Manningham returned to action against Ball State.
Manningham’s appearance energized the crowd and motivated an offense that had sputtered during his hiatus.
“It was pretty cool to see everybody has that much respect for him,” captain Jake Long said. “He deserves it because he’s a great player. It was cool because all of us came out really fired up, too.”
With 2:29 remaining in the first quarter, the sophomore trotted onto the field for the first time since injuring his knee against Michigan State in early October. The Michigan faithful greeted Manningham – the nation’s leader in touchdown receptions at the time of his injury – with a standing ovation.
“I’m sure it made Mario feel great,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I can tell you when he came back to practice on Tuesday his teammates felt the same way. . Tuesday was really fun to see. Every time he ran down the field, it brought a smile to everybody’s face – especially Chad Henne.”
Maybe the biggest smiles should have belonged to the running backs.
He didn’t catch a pass, but Manningham still left his stamp on the offense thanks to his impact on the ground game.
On two consecutive drives in the second quarter, backup running back Brandon Minor broke 30-plus yard runs the play after Manningham entered the game – including his 40-yard touchdown scamper.
Manningham’s mere presence forced Ball State to drop an extra person into coverage, someone who otherwise would’ve concentrated on stopping the run.
“I think he makes a big difference in the way that we’re going to be defended,” Carr said. “I think there’s no doubt about that. We had a lot of success running the football today, and I’m sure that helped.”
In all, the Warren, Ohio, native participated in 13 plays, 11 of which occurred in the middle two quarters. Carr said the team intended to get him eight-to-10 snaps for the game.
In terms of the passing game, Henne looked Manningham’s way during his progression multiple times when the sophomore was on the field. But Manningham drew Ball State’s full attention with multiple double teams.
The one pass Henne did throw Manningham’s way – on the receiver’s 10th snap of the game – was a fly pattern down the right sideline. The long ball ended up sailing over Manningham’s head and falling incomplete.
“It was a good shot because they gave us single-high coverage, which would be one-on-one, but the guy was playing too far off,” Henne said. “It was kind of a no-win situation right there.”
Manningham’s stealth continued following the game, when he eluded reporters who sought comment multiple times.
He didn’t answer any questions, but assured reporters that he was fine.
Just getting Manningham back on the field serves as a confidence booster for the Michigan offense, which had struggled without its top wide receiver.
After undergoing surgery on Oct. 10, Manningham missed the Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern games – Michigan’s three lowest-scoring games of the year.
And though Manningham was held without a catch for the first time in 16 games, Carr was happy with the progress he displayed on Saturday. After Carr eased Manningham back into the lineup against the Cardinals, Manningham should be back to normal for the rest of the year.
“I think right now he’s right where he needs to be, and I think he’ll be ready to start the game this week (against Indiana),” Carr said.