CHAMPAIGN – Leading up to Saturday’s game, Michigan football discussion centered largely on whether or not running back Mike Hart would return.
The senior captain didn’t. But another Wolverine did come back from injury, and, in doing so, saved the game.
In a performance that left his coaches grasping for superlatives to describe it, Michigan quarterback Chad Henne battled through an in-game injury to lead the Wolverines to 27-17 road victory over Illinois. With every other Big Ten team save Ohio State saddled with two losses, Michigan remains in control of its own destiny, and with its sixth straight win, continues to turnaround what once looked like a lost season.
By fighting off Illinois’ bid for a tie for second place, it appears as if Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) has officially turned the Big Ten Championship into a two-team race.
Although, in typical fashion, Michigan coaches would not disclose the nature of Henne’s shoulder injury, their response after the game – and the sling Henne wore when he exited – suggested it was fairly severe.
Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr called Henne “courageous.” Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said it was one of the “guttiest” performances he’d seen in a long time. Running backs coach Fred Jackson — well, let’s just say he left nothing to understatement.
“I’ve been coaching college football since 1980 and I’ve never seen a guy who went through what he went through for his team,” Jackson said. “He’s the ultimate warrior in my mind.”
At 16-for-28 for 201 yards, Henne’s performance wasn’t one for the record books. And the stat sheet will note it was wide receiver Adrian Arrington who hit Mario Manningham midway through the fourth quarter on an end-around pass for the game-winning score. But the presence Henne brought after sitting out the third quarter could be one destined for Wolverine lore.
Henne restored order to a Michigan offense spiraling out of control under freshman Ryan Mallett, who looked much less composed under the lights of Memorial Stadium than he did in the Big House earlier this season.
Up 17-14 coming out of the half, Mallett took a third-down sack in a spot where he seemingly would have gunned a pass down the field one month ago, earning a stern lecture from Carr. And as Michigan looked to pull away later in the quarter, he fumbled away a snap and tossed an interception to kill two near-scoring drives.
Henne didn’t necessarily win the game for the Wolverines when he returned (they have a botched punt return by Illinois on its own 13-yard line to thank for that), but he minimized the mistakes that could have cost them. With sloppy play and 10 penalties, Illinois did its best to hand Michigan the game. Without Henne, Michigan might have returned it to sender.
“He did something special today in that stadium that anybody who was a member of this team will never forget,” Carr said.
Especially a few Wolverines.
Henne’s performance saved a number of his teammate’s own redeeming showings from going to waste.
Filling in for Hart, third-string running back Carlos Brown proved he’s better than the back who struggled with a wrist injury and holding on to the ball earlier this season. With injured backup Brandon Minor seeing limited action, Brown – who briefly switched to defensive back this spring and nearly transferred from Michigan – ran for 113 yards on 25 carries, becoming the first back to break triple digits against Illinois this year.
And the defense that has struggled to stop running quarterbacks time and again finally came through.
Illinois scored an early passing touchdown when cornerback Donovan Warren bit on a fake, and the defense’s trouble with reads allowed quarterback Juice Williams to engineer a 90-yard drive early in the second quarter.
But Michigan stuck to its gameplan and limited the two Illini quarterbacks to just 29 yards on the ground and 116 in the air. With their offense bottled up, the Illini managed just a field goal after halftime.
“Anything can happen in the running game, and we shut that down and forced them to pass and that helps us out a lot,” Michigan linebacker Chris Graham said. “They made their plays, we made big plays stopping them, and it was just going back and forth. It was who was going to give in first.”
With 1-6 Minnesota up next on the schedule, Michigan should get some much-needed rest before its grueling end-of-season stretch. Carr says Hart’s status is still day-to-day, and Henne’s availability for the game is unknown.
What’s not, though, is this. His performance Saturday will remain timeless.