Even though the status of quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart remains unknown, there is one certainty: Saturday’s game against last-place Minnesota is the final chance for the Wolverines to rest their starters before a stretch run at Michigan State, at Wisconsin and against Ohio State to close the season.
Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was coy when speaking about both stars at his weekly press conference Monday. Both are listed as starters on the depth chart, but as this season has shown, the start-of-week depth chart isn’t always the same as the one on Saturday. Still, Carr thinks Hart’s chances of seeing the field are much better than they were last week.
“I’m sure Mike is going to be a lot better than he was last week,” Carr said. “I think daily he’ll improve. From the time he got hurt, you just don’t know. All you do know is they’re getting better.”
As for Henne: “You know, the only thing I can say is that he’s day to day. We’ll see how he feels, go from there,” Carr said.
If neither can go, Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) has capable backups with game experience ready to step up.
Sophomore Carlos Brown topped the 100-yard mark against Illinois last weekend in relief of Hart. It was the first time a back ran for more than 100 yards against the Fighting Illini all season.
Freshman Ryan Mallett started two games when Henne hurt his knee earlier this season. He also played for about a third of the Illinois game when Henne went down with a shoulder injury.
Both have shown flashes of greatness this season, but each have also had issues holding onto the ball. Brown fumbled three times at the beginning of the season, and Mallett has had issues handling snaps all season.
Something Mallett and his teammates will want to keep a handle on is the Little Brown Jug – the trophy Michigan and Minnesota compete for each year. Michigan has won 17 of the last 18 meetings between the two teams and regained the Jug with a 28-14 win last season at Minnesota.
Despite the discrepancy between the team’s records – both within the rivalry and this season – the Wolverines contend this game is different than just any matchup against a 1-7 team.
“The rivalry really doesn’t change because I watched Minnesota and they come out and hit hard, and if you don’t play with that same intensity anything can happen at this time in the season,” linebacker Chris Graham said. “You want to be on top of your game and just go out there and treat them like any other type of team.”
Even with the rivalry in mind, it could be a tough game for Michigan to get excited about. Minnesota’s defense yielded 394 yards on the ground against Division I-AA North Dakota State last weekend. If that isn’t enough, the Gophers (0-4, 1-7) plan to start three true freshmen in the secondary Saturday, according to coach Tim Brewster.
Still, since Michigan had its own run-in with a Division I-AA team, the members of the team have kept preaching the mantra of not overlooking anyone.
“I think we learned early in the season not to take any team for granted,” freshman offensive lineman Steve Schilling said. “We’re just going to prepare for the game like any other game we’ve prepared for. The coaches are going to get us into a good game plan, and we’re going to do the best we can to execute.”