It’s always easy to look at Michigan and wonder what could have, what whould have, what should have. You know, like, “What if Mike Hart had started against Notre Dame? He’d have run for 100 easily, and we’d have won, and we’d be undefeated, and …”

Sharad Mattu

But this year, that’s not the right thing to do. Instead, take a look around the conference.

There’s Minnesota, which rolled into Ann Arbor undefeated and boasted a supposedly unstoppable run offense. Bur the Gophers lost the lead in the fourth quarter, and have quietly lost four of five games since.

Then there’s Purdue, which had everything set up for a conference title run. Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State were all coming to West Lafayette, and senior quarterback Kyle Orton had developed into a Heisman favorite. But the Boilermakers lost to Wisconsin, then Michigan, and then two other teams.

And there’s this week’s opponent, Ohio State. Apparently, two straight years at or near the top of the conference was enough for the Buckeyes, and they lost three games to open their conference slate. With the recent developments in the Maurice Clarett saga, who knows how legitimate their national championship two years ago really is.

The point is, it’s not easy to contend year after year after year the way Michigan has, does and will. If there was ever a year for the Wolverines to drop a level, this was it. Michigan said goodbye to its quarterback and running back, two starting offensive and defensive linemen and many others.

At the beginning of the season, they were planning to break in a new quarterback and running back, but within a three-week span they were breaking in a new freshman quarterback and running back.

Yet, Michigan is 6-0 with Chad Henne and Hart as its starting backfield, and 8-0 when the duo plays the majority of the game.

While Hart’s emergence has been unexpected and invaluable, to see a freshman running back doing what he’s doing isn’t exactly uncharted territory. As Braylon Edwards said on Saturday, Hart’s just hitting the hole and doing his thing just like when he was in high school.

But what Henne is accomplishing as a freshman quarterback is pretty special, and numbers like his 62.7 completion percentage and nearly two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio don’t tell begin to the story.

Early in the season, though he already had the arm, Henne’s limitations were clear. Just think back to that Notre Dame game; signaling the play in to the quarterback is supposed to be as easy as tying shoes, but for some reason even that was difficult. And if that’s going to be a problem, forget tough tasks like reading the defense and calling audibles.

But now, 10 weeks later, Michigan’s offense is drastically different thanks to Henne’s progress. Early on, only No. 1 seemed to be on his radar, but against Northwestern, Edwards caught seven passes and Jason Avant and Steve Breaston caught five each. It was the first time this season three receivers had at least five receptions each.

“He makes great strides every week,” offensive coordinator Terry Malone said. “That position holds a lot of responsibility, and we’ve been giving him more and more responsibility each week.

“He’s really smart, and he never makes the same mistake twice. Like any freshman, he’s been making mistakes along the way, but he corrects those mistakes and doesn’t continue to make those same mistakes.”

And Henne has something he hasn’t learned in the last three months — the ability to put bad stretches behind him just in the knick of time. Against Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan State, Henne struggled for most of the game, but then found a way to do just enough at the end to pull out the win. With those three fourth-quarter comebacks, he’s only one behind his predecessor, John Navarre.

“(Chad) really has a knack of doing that,” quarterback Spencer Brinton said. “It gives us another weapon. We know that even if we’re behind and Chad has been struggling we don’t have to be afraid to throw the ball, because he can bring us back.”

This is just the beginning. With a great guru in quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler and great talent surrounding him, the next three years in the Big House could be pretty special.

“The beautiful thing about this position is you’re never where you’re supposed to be,” Loeffler said. “You could go to Tom Brady right now and he’ll tell you 10 things he needs to work on.”

Henne doesn’t quite know what to expect in Columbus on Saturday, but he has a good idea.

“Until I get down there, I won’t know (what it’s like),” Henne said. “Everybody talks about it, but you have to see it for yourself. It’s a hostile environment. It’s the biggest tradition in college football. They hate us and we hate them.”

Thanks to his progress all season, Michigan has more motivation to win than just hatred. It’s something Ohio State can’t say.

 

Sharad Mattu can be reached at smattu@umich.edu.

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