Mike Hart showed exactly how you back up a guarantee.
Thirty-five carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns came to play, but his guarantee stretched deeper than self-motivation. He used it to reach out to his teammates.
When Hart went up to the podium after a horrific loss to Oregon and predicted victory over Notre Dame, the senior captain drew a fair share of criticism.
What prompted Hart to put so much faith in a team that opened the season with two bad losses? Why would he put even more pressure on a group of guys already hanging their heads over a heartbreaker and a blowout?
Most important, how confident could he have been in an offense that had a freshman quarterback filling in for a four-year starter?
But if you watched the same game I did on Saturday, you can see why this team’s emotional leader did it.
He wanted everyone to play together, to unite around a single cause – a guarantee.
“Anytime your leader goes out there and guarantees something, you have to put aside some of your pride and just play for the seniors,” wide receiver Greg Mathews said. “And the fact that he just went out there and put his neck on the line for us showed us a lot.”
Hart followed through on his promise. He broke tackles and found a way to stay on his feet when other backs would’ve surrendered to the ground.
But he also mustered out of his teammates an intensity that had been missing in Michigan’s horrendous start.
The defense played like the Michigan unit of last year. It remembered how to tackle. It was aggressive, pressuring the quarterback with blitzes. And it caused turnovers.
Granted, the Fighting Irish looked lost on offense (and defense), but the Wolverine defense played with confidence. The unit came out with the chip on its shoulder most expected to see when it took the field against Oregon.
And the offense, for the first time this season, converted on early opportunities to give the Wolverines a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
The offensive line protected freshman Ryan Mallett and opened up holes Hart had yet to see this season.
It all goes back to Hart’s choice words and his teammates rallying behind him.
“He wanted everyone to come with him,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “It was just him saying he wanted the other guys to come and play as hard as he’s going to play.”
The cohesiveness started in practice. Hart said everyone gave him grief about the guarantee, especially in the stretching lines. Senior Adam Kraus said the team discussed Hart’s words because it had to make the win happen.
Even with all the heat Hart took in practice, his words served their purpose.
His teammates weren’t stuck on the way they fell flat on their faces coming out of the gates this season. They had a new talking point.
“You don’t forget, but you have to put it behind you because if we would have been thinking about the first two games in this game, it would have been a loss again,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said.
At the Wolverines’ weekly press conference last week, safety Brandent Englemon said he doesn’t make guarantees, but in the same breath, he added he would do his best to turn Hart’s into a reality.
“We had a great time with it,” Hart said. “We had a great time all week. We were all a group, and I think it helped us out.”
Hart’s words did more than loosen the team. The guarantee gave it purpose.
“We didn’t want to make him look bad,” Mallett said.
Mallett and company can rest assured they held up their end of the bargain.
– Wright can be reached at email@example.com