This is where it starts for the Wolverines. . Michigan is 11th nationally in rushing offense this season, averaging 189 yards per game. They lead the Big Ten with 508 rushing attempts for 2,270 yards and 21 touchdowns.
While he's gotten a small amount of help, most of this ground-game damage has come from Mike Hart. He comes into this game as the only running back in the country who has rushed for at least 90 yards in every game this season. He is averaging just over 126 yards per game, good for seventh in the country. On the season, Hart has 301 carries for 1,515 yards and 14 touchdowns.
As a running back, Hart doesn't have exceptional speed, but he is one of the best in the country at wiggling out of tackles and fighting for extra yards. If the first Trojan defender doesn't wrap Hart up and bring him down, it will be frustrating to watch Hart pick up extra yards and first downs all day long. He is coming off one of his best games of the season against Ohio State, where he rushed 23 times for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
With all of these attributes, the most important aspect of Mike Hart is his ability to hold onto the football. He simply does not fumble. He has fumbled the ball just three times in his career and as long as he doesn't lose a fumble on his first touch against USC, he will hit 750 consecutive touches without turning the ball over. As a result of Hart's ball control, he is the main reason why the Wolverines have turned the ball over just ten times this season, the fewest in the country.
The Wolverines have a good quarterback and great wide receivers, but for the Trojans, this game will be all about stopping Hart. If he is able to establish a rhythm and average five yards per carry (his average for the season), this Michigan offense will be very difficult to stop. Hart's ability to run the ball and pick up positive yardage on just about every play enables the Michigan offense to stay on the field for huge chunks of time. The Wolverines are averaging over 33 ½ minutes of offense during each game of the season, good for second in the country and just two seconds behind Wisconsin. In fact, Michigan has won the ball-control battle in 11 of their 12 games this season.
The last time the Trojans faced the Wolverines, the USC defensive line was clogging holes and slowing things up for the Michigan running game all day, allowing the linebackers to come in and make plays at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. This time around, that type of play from the Trojan defensive line will be even more important in order to keep the Wolverine ground game in check and on the sidelines.
Hart is supported by Brandon Minor (235 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries), Jerome Jackson (213 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries) and Kevin Grady (187 yards and three touchdowns on 55 carries). Michigan is not afraid to spread the ball around, but with the way Hart has performed this season, they haven't had to do it much.
Through The Air
Chad Henne is having a nice season for a quarterback in 2006. He has completed 166-of-266 passes (62.4%) for 2,199 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year. Henne needs to throw for 301 yards and three touchdowns against the Trojans in order to reach 2,500 yards for the third time in his career and become the first Michigan quarterback to have three seasons with at least 23 touchdown passes. Needless to say, if Henne reaches those marks, the Trojans will have a difficult time winning the game.
Henne possesses a very strong arm combined with good accuracy. He's not afraid to try the deep ball to any one of his three speedy receivers, but he's far more comfortable hitting the underneath pass and picking up first downs or letting his receivers make a play.
He isn't a running quarterback by any means, but he knows his way around the pocket and can pick up yards if all of his throwing options are covered.
The Trojans must force him to make quick decisions and not allow him to find deep receivers for easy chunks of yardage.
Catching The Ball
The Wolverines have three very good receivers. Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington are more pure wide receivers, while Steve Breaston is a speed guy who can make plays with the ball in his hand.
On the season, Breaston leads the team with 51 receptions, but Manningham's 32 catches have gone for 624 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns. Manningham was also forced to miss four games this season with an injury, drastically cutting down on his reception total.
Though they all possess great speed, Manningham has come into his own as a wide receiver this season, showing an ability to get open on just about every type of route. He's averaging nearly 20-yards per catch and will test the Trojan defensive backs both deep and short.
The Wolverines will work to get Breaston the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage so that he can showcase the type of running ability in traffic that makes him one of the most dangerous punt returners in the nation. He's averaging just ten-yards per reception, but he certainly has the speed to beat a cornerback deep off the line.
Adrian Arrington is a solid number three receiver, able to step up and make plays whenever the ball heads his way. He has 36 catches for 510 yards this season, to go along with seven touchdowns. He's caught a pass in all 12 games and can show up big if the defense spends too much time on the other two receivers.
While all three receivers possess game-breaking ability, none will present much of a height mismatch for the Trojan defensive backs, and all have a tendency to drop some catchable balls. The USC defense must keep them contained and make sure that no short play breaks for a big gain.
The Wolverines also have two tight ends, Carson Butler and Tyler Ecker, who will show up repeatedly in the passing game.
Butler leads the pair with 18 grabs for 161 yards and a touchdown. And while Ecker has just six grabs for 77 yards this season, two of them have gone for scores. Both tight ends are physically gifted, with good speed and hands. They have been much more important as blockers this season, but they can sneak out and surprise a defense in the passing game. They won't dominate a game the way some tight ends can, but after last season's Rose Bowl game, tight ends have a way of scaring some Trojan fans.
As evidenced by the dynamite ground game and time of possession this season, the Michigan offensive line has been one of the best in the nation. The Wolverine line is big and battle tested, with two fifth-year seniors, two true seniors and a true junior.
They are led by Jake Long, who was selected as the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year this season. Long could be the best tackle in the nation and protects Henne's blindside. The Trojans must find a way to attack Long, because if he is able to sit back and block one-on-one for the entire game, he won't be easy to beat.
Long is joined by center Mark Bihl, who was chosen as a Rimington Award finalist this season. Long and Bihl mirror the Trojans' own Sam Baker and Ryan Kalil in forming a dominating left tackle and center combination.
They are separated by Adam Kraus, who was selected to the Big-Ten first team this season.
Alex Mitchell (guard) and Rueben Riley (tackle) form the right side of the offensive line, and while they may not be a dominating force like the left side, are more than capable of sustaining the running game when it's called to their side.
The battle up front will be of utmost importance to the Trojans. The Michigan offensive line is probably the best that USC will face all season. So many teams from outside the Pac-10 have come into games against the Trojans thinking they will simply run all over them, but the Trojan defensive line gets up for games like this. I'd be surprised if the Wolverines hit their rushing-yard average against the Trojans.
The USC linebackers are fast enough to fill the running holes and bring Hart down for short or no gains. The biggest question will be if the Trojan defense can limit the Michigan offensive skill players to no yards after catch or contact.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.