Wolverine TB Chris Perry was a tough act to follow, but the freshman Hart emerged mid-season to help lead his school to two of its biggest wins: a 30-17 decision against Iowa and a 16-14 gutcheck win at Purdue. But when defenses shut down Hart, the result was a pair of road losses at Ohio State and Notre Dame.
The Big Blue was still searching for a big-time ball carrier when No. 8 Michigan visited South Bend on September 11. Edwards found enough wiggle room for 129 yards on 12 catches but the Fighting Irish completely mitigated Michigan's ground game. Hart had but 17 yards on five carries while TB Jerome Jackson was Michigan's leading rusher with 32 yards on 15 totes. Notre Dame scored 28 second half points and held Michigan without a rushing TD. In fact, the Wolverines did not cross the goal line until freshman QB Chad Henne hooked up with WR Steve Breaston during the final three minutes.
By late September, however, Hart was growing up quickly and accounted for 99 net yards on 28 carries, including one TD, in Michigan's win against Iowa. The big story was that Michigan's defense forced five turnovers, leading directly to 27 points in the 30-17 outcome. The Wolverine win later proved pivotal, serving as the tie-breaker that sent Michigan to its 19th Rose Bowl appearance and extending its Big 10 record to 42 conference championships, won or shared.
One month later, the Wolverines traveled to West Lafayette for a showdown against high-flying No. 12 Purdue (the closest thing the blue collar Big 10 has to Texas Tech). In that one, Edwards was held to a season-low 25 yards on five grabs but Hart became just the second Wolverine in program history to crack the 200-yard mark on consecutive Saturdays. The Wolverines played traditional Michigan football, pounding their tailback and controlling the game clock. At the end of the day, Hart had stepped off 206 yards on 33 attempts and added his first career TD reception on a 25-yard screen from Henne.
The Wolverines had worked their way back up to a No. 7 ranking and were on the verge of an outright Big 10 title when they traveled to unranked archrival Ohio State. Hart registered just 61 yards on 18 carries, in part because the Buckeyes jumped out early in this one. Edwards pulled down 11 catches for 172 yards while Henne tied his career-best with 328 yards on 27-of-54 passing, including two TDs. But the Buckeye defense picked off two his tosses and held Edwards to just one TD. Ohio State also discovered its offense just in time for its rival, forcing the Wolverines to become one-dimensional as Hart was (statistically) a non-factor.
Long story short: Michigan tallied just 71 rushing yards at Notre Dame and 56 net yards at Ohio State.
Still, it was a solid year for the freshman as he accounted for 1,372 yards on 261 carries (5.3 ypc), including nine TDs. Hart averaged right at 125 ypg and, when he found room to roam, it was often behind the clearing blocks of C David Bass. The Outland Trophy finalist was one of four Wolverines named Associated Press First-Team All-Americans this week.
By now, most Orangebloods know that WLB Derrick Johnson is Texas' first back-to-back AP First-Team All-American since RB Ricky Williams (1997-98) and that D.J. leads the team with 128 stops. The Butkus Award winner will be all over the field in Pasadena and produced such a superlative senior campaign that it overshadowed what was an otherwise breakout season for MLB Aaron Harris.
Harris is a headknocker who should be instrumental in clogging the middle and flushing Hart to the outside. Prior to Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson's arrival, the Horns were vulnerable up the gut and generally stingy against an east-west running game. This year, only Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson was able to consistently turn the corner against the Horns. And the Sooner freshman won't be playing in Pasadena on New Year's Day.
Harris's star is on the rise and he was second only to Johnson with 109 tackles (57 solo), including nine TFL. He also forced two fumbles and added an INT. Hart has proven that he can hurt you but, add to the mix a Rod Wright-anchored D-Line, this is a matchup that bodes well for Texas.