When Mike Hart burst onto the scene last year, he quickly demonstrated to the college football world that he was an outstanding running back. Despite the knocks that stemmed from his diminutive size, he managed to scorch the Michigan record books in just his first season in the Maize and Blue. But as impressive as all of his first-year accomplishments were, they pale in comparison to what he was able to do Saturday versus the Michigan State Spartans.
Hart's 36-carry, 218-yard showing in East Lansing cemented his status as not only one of the top running backs in the country, but also as one of the top players in college football regardless of position. Could that be overstating things a bit? The answer, quite simply, is no. The circumstances surrounding that game called for the type of Herculean effort that only a great player could deliver, and Hart proved he is worthy of that type of praise.
No one except the young man himself could have known that he was going to contribute so extensively. The word out of practice early last week was that his hamstring was still noticeably bothering him. Many close to the situation wondered how effective he could actually be, if at all. Even Coach Carr had his doubts, and he confirmed the early week rumblings Saturday after the game. "On Tuesday…he practiced and he was out there, but he didn't look like Mike Hart," Carr recalled. "He practiced on Wednesday, and he didn't look like Mike Hart. Our trainer Paul Schmidt said, 'Look, he'll be there. He'll be ready, but he has been out for three weeks.'"
For Hart, being there for his team in THAT game was never in question. "I wasn't going to miss this game for anything," Hart said. "I don't care how hurt I was." And make no mistake about it…the young man was definitely hurt. That's why his passionate running display after sitting out for three weeks will go down as one of the best ever by a Michigan tailback. Despite still being in obvious discomfort, he ran over and around Green and White defenders all day long. Statically it was not his best performance, but backdrop for that contest magnified his effort ten-fold.
Consider these things; Hart was still far less 100%...Michigan was facing the possibility of a below .500 record for the first time since 1998 and a five-loss season for only the second time in 36 years…and the offense was being widely criticized for lack of production. Conversely, the Spartans were 4-0, ranked #11 in the nation, with one of the top offense in the country.
With all of those factors staring him right in the face, Hart strapped the team on his back. He did so at times last year, but there was another superstar in the locker room that could be looked to to either save the team or divert attention away from him when the chips were down. That is no longer the case. Hart's performance Saturday showed that this year, he is THE guy. Sure Chad Henne stepped up his play, and so did the offensive line. They each deserve credit for their improvement, but so too does Hart. His mere presence changed the entire complexion of the offense...from the way they executed, to the confidence they displayed coming out of the huddle. The unit had a little more swagger. They had more edge. Hart was the catalyst for all of that.
If his importance to this squad couldn't be quantified before, it certainly can now. He is the driving force behind this team. He is its most valuable player. He is its best player.
Was Mike Hart's performance the best all time by a Michigan back? Probably not. But it's certainly ranks right up there. There was more to what he did than mere numbers. There isn't any question that it was as inspiring and as meaningful a showing as any that has come before it.
For those that missed Tom Beaver's statistical analysis of the best all-time rushing performances by UM backs, click here.
No Drop-Off from Shazor to Englemon
With the heavy losses Michigan sustained in the defensive backfield after last season, many predicted the secondary would be a weak spot for this year's Wolverines. Thus far, though, Ron English's unit has been anything but a liability. First-year starter Brandent Englemon has had a great deal to do with that.
Through five games the Covington Kentucky native has 18 solo tackles, 29 overall, 2 sacks, one pass break up and two fumble recoveries. Compare that to Ernest Shazor's 21 solos, 28 overall, 3 tackles for loss, 2 INTs, 1 pass break up, and one fumble recovery through five games last year, and it's obvious that their production is practically identical. When one looks beyond the statistics, it's even more clear that there has been no drop-off at the strong safety position.
Englemon has been every bit the physical presence in the secondary that Shazor was and has routinely tattooed unsuspecting receivers this year. According to Englemon, he is just doing the things he has been taught to do. "We're coached to stay on our feet and run through the ball carrier," Englemon said of his huge hits. "But I can get better. That starts in practice. You have to read your keys and react. It's just a matter of reading your keys and staying focused the whole game. All I had to do, really, is do what I'm coached. If I can do what I'm coached to the best of my ability, and that's not enough, then something needs to be done. As long as I do my best and stay within the technique, then we should be good."
In Saturday's game head Coach Lloyd Carr indicated the Englemon and safety cohort Willis Barringer were more than good. He felt they were great. "I like defensively that there were very, very few yards gained after the catch," Carr said. "I thought we were aggressive. I think Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer, two safeties, played as fine as any two safeties have played in any game since I have been at Michigan. I thought they were outstanding."
Ali-Frazier Fights inspire Michigan
One of the motivational tools used heading into the Michigan State game was replaying the epic boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Smokin' Joe Frazier. The defense found Ali's resilience particularly inspiring and drew on that during Saturday's contest. "We knew that [Michigan State] was explosive all round…running and passing," Gabe Watson said. "Coach Herrmann and the rest of the staff put together a good game plan. We knew we needed to stop them. We couldn't have the same thing happen that did last year. They still hit a couple of big plays. All week long we were watching the Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali fight. One time Frazier hit Ali and he fell down, but he got back up before they could even start the count. The big plays were like us falling down, but we had to get back up and continue to fight. We did that and came away with the victory."
"The last one was one of the best fights I've ever seen," Prescott Burgess said. "It went 15 rounds and neither man would go down for nothing. Frazier had Ali hurt in the thirteenth or fourteenth round, but Ali would never give up. That's one thing coach Carr preaches to us. We can't give up. We have to fight no matter how hard it is. I think it woke a lot of us up. If he can do it, why can't we."
Third Quarter Woes Continue to Plague Offense
The Michigan offense continued to sputter in the third quarter versus Michigan
State Saturday. Thus far this season the Wolverines have only scored three points
in the period (vs. Eastern Michigan), and have been nearly doubled up in time
of possession in the third quarter of the last two games, 19:41 to 10:19.