When referees initially ruled that tailback Mike Hart had fumbled late in the fourth quarter against Iowa, the call surprised almost everyone in the Big House.

Angela Cesere
Running back Mike Hart is the key to a Michigan offense that rarely puts its defense in compromising positions off of turnovers, making the Wolverines even tougher to beat. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

Hart protects the ball better than almost any running back in the nation. The junior hasn’t lost a fumble in 639 touches.

But what made his almost-fumble even more surprising is how rarely No. 2 Michigan has turned the ball over this season.

Through eight games, the Wolverines have committed just six turnovers (five interceptions and one fumble), tied with No. 1 Ohio State for the fewest of any Division I-A team this season.

Hart’s reliable hands aside, coach Lloyd Carr attributed at least some of Michigan’s turnover paucity to smooth exchanges between center Mark Bihl and quarterback Chad Henne.

“A year ago we had a couple (problems with the exchange), and one of them cost us a game,” Carr said. “It’s one of those things you take for granted . and yet it’s the most important part of any play.”

Henne has also helped keep the Wolverines’ turnover total low by limiting costly interceptions. Even though the junior signal caller has thrown one more pick than he had at this point last season, most of his five interceptions haven’t hurt Michigan.

Of the three picks Henne threw against Wisconsin, the Badgers converted just one into points.

Although Henne’s lone interception against Iowa resulted in a Hawkeye field goal, it came on a third-and-22 play, and Carr likened the pick to a punt in that situation.

“A couple of his interceptions have (come) as a result of throwaways late in the game,” Carr said. “Thus far, we’ve done a great job with the football, as good as any team I’ve been around.”

Mario getting a 1-up: Carr was optimistic but vague when asked to describe Mario Manningham’s improvement at his weekly press conference yesterday. The coach said his injured wide receiver is “making very rapid progress” and is “ahead of schedule” in terms of his rehab.

Perhaps the most encouraging news of the day came when Carr emphasized that Manningham will “absolutely” return to the field this season.

The sophomore injured his knee in the Wolverines’ win over Michigan State and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the following week.

During Michigan’s victory over Iowa last weekend, Manningham was spotted on the sideline sporting street clothes and using crutches.

With the Wolverines’ star playmaker out of the lineup, other receivers, especially junior Adrian Arrington and freshman Greg Mathews, have seen their role in Michigan’s offense increase dramatically.

Carr wouldn’t call it a blessing in disguise, but he did say the Wolverines’ depth at receiver had improved in Manningham’s absence.

“I don’t think there’s any question that overall, as a team, we’ve been able to gain some confidence . because of the increased playing time in big games,” Carr said.

Get well soon: The Associated Press reported that former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler had a small device inserted in his chest to help regulate his heart beat yesterday.

Carr said he would be heading over to the hospital to visit Schembechler soon after his weekly press conference ended.

“He had a procedure this morning, and the reports are that it went very well,” Carr said. “I’m sure he’s going to be going home here in the next day or two.”

Schembechler was admitted to the hospital’s cardiac-care unit last Friday after he felt dizzy while taping a radio show.

Injury update: After providing few details about injuries following Saturday’s game, Carr elaborated on the statuses of some players yesterday.

Carr said safety Ryan Mundy, who missed the Iowa game with an unspecified injury, should return to the lineup against Northwestern on Saturday.

The news about Michigan’s injury-plagued tight ends wasn’t as positive. Carr doesn’t expect junior Mike Massey to play this week.

Offensive lineman Steve Schilling will miss the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery last week. The freshman had experienced some discomfort in his shoulder last spring.

“We are a banged-up football team,” Carr said. “There’s no question about that.”

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