MINNEAPOLIS – Following Michigan’s win against Wisconsin two weeks ago, almost nobody wanted to ask Michigan quarterback Chad Henne about his two touchdown passes.
Instead, he was pressed about whether or not he was concerned about his team’s inability to move the chains on third down – something Henne admitted was a big focus during the week of practice leading up to the game.
“I don’t know why we struggled so much on third downs,” Henne said following Michigan’s 27-13 win against Wisconsin. “We’ll just have to watch the film and start working on it in practice again this week.”
Time after time, Michigan came up empty-handed on third downs against the Badgers. The execution was so poor that the team didn’t convert a third-down opportunity all first half, going 0-for-7 during that span.
But this weekend, Henne apparently wasn’t in the mood to field the same questions.
The junior’s first-half passing stats on third down were perfect, going 3-for-3 with one touchdown.
“I thought Chad was really sharp,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of Henne, who finished the game 17-of-24 for a season-high 284 yards and three touchdowns. “He made a lot of great throws.”
During the game’s opening 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, junior running back Mike Hart carried most of the load on his back with 44 yards on seven carries. When Minnesota finally corralled Michigan’s workhorse in the backfield and Michigan faced its second third down of the drive, Henne stepped to the forefront.
With the Metrodome getting loud as the game’s opening drive reached its crucial peak, Henne found wide receiver Adrian Arrington open in the end zone for a 16-yard score.
“I got a read route where I have to read double high or single high,” Arrington said. “It was single high, so I kept it vertical. It was wide open.”
Two other throws by Henne on third downs kept the Wolverines’ other two scoring drives alive.
Just two plays prior to Henne’s second touchdown strike to Arrington, the drive showed signs of life after Henne hit junior Mike Massey across the middle. The tight end was tackled just inches short of the first-down marker, but that distance was easily picked up by Hart on the next play. That led to a 37-yard connection to Arrington the next play.
“He’s been doing it for three years now,” Arrington said. “When you got as much experience as he has and he’s just a great player anyway. He’s going to put that perfect touch on it pretty much every time.”
Henne capped off his perfect half of third-down aerial attacks with more help from Arrington. Facing a third-and-four around midfield, Henne found the Cedar Rapids native on a quick slant from the left slot, good for five yards and a first down. On the next play, the oh-so-familiar combination of Henne and Mario Manningham connected with a 41-yard touchdown pass on a deep post.
Although Henne’s perfect streak on third downs didn’t last deep into the second half, he still experienced his fair share of success.
Henne completed three passes of 27 or more yards on third-and-longs in the second half, with two going to Manningham (27, 36) and the third to Hart (31).
And Henne wasn’t alone in the conversion-success category. The Wolverines moved the chains on crucial third downs on the ground as well.
“We had a big third down early in the game,” Carr said. “We ran the football and I think it really sparked our offense. Because, you know, if it’s third-and-three, you have enough confidence that you can run the football, then it makes the defense play a little bit differently. So now, that helps you in the passing game.”
Hart’s biggest third-down run of the game acted as a clincher. Facing a third-and-three, the junior started left, then exploded through the Gopher defensive line and was finally taken down 54 yards later down the right sideline.
“We knew once we had a first down, the game was going to be over,” Hart said. “When it opened up, I just went and I wanted to stay inbounds at the end.”
For the game, the team converted 66 percent (10-for-15) of its conversions, a drastic improvement from its 2-for-13 showing against the Badgers last weekend.
Because of its ability to extend drives, Michigan dominated the time of possession for the game, 37:39 to 22:21.
“I don’t know exactly what the stats were, but I know they were a lot better than a week ago,” Carr said. “It enabled us to maintain control of the ball and keep their offense off (the field).”