By Tom Orr
They’re baaaaaaaaack. Like an annoying friend or a case of VD, Michigan football just won’t go away.
Everything seemed to be set up perfectly for the Wolverines to fall to 0-2 in the conference, 2-3 overall and 2-5 in their last seven games. But a combination of Michael Hart, a slowly improving defense and some timely implosions by the Spartans added up to an overtime win for Michigan, and pushed the Wolverines back into the Big Ten title chase.
There are still problems, but Michigan cleared a big hurdle, and the talk of a Motor City Bowl invitation has died down considerably.
When Michigan had the ball: Chad Henne’s struggles against Notre Dame and Wisconsin may have had a lot more to do with the absence of a running back than anything else.
Sophomore RB Michael Hart returned after missing almost three full games with a hamstring injury, and immediately gave the Michigan offense a shot in the arm. He ran 36 times for 218 yards and a score, but it was two of those runs that really set the tone for the day.
On just the third play from scrimmage, with Michigan facing a third down deep in its own end, Hart ripped off a 45-yard run. That was 17 yards longer than any run by a Michigan running back all year, and was the highlight of a 98-yard touchdown drive that set the tone for most of the first half.
Then, after MSU dominated the third quarter (holding a 123-12 advantage in total offense), Hart took off on a 64-yard run on the Wolverines’ first play from scrimmage in the fourth, kick-starting their drive for a go-ahead touchdown.
It’s worth noting that while Hart is a grinder, he’s not a burner; he was caught from behind on both of his runs. But if you’re playing nine guys in the box (as MSU did quite a bit on Saturday) he can break a tackle and turn it into a big play.
Hart also helps Michigan hang on to the ball. He has only one career fumble (a stat you’ll get sick of hearing if you watch a UM game on TV), while backups Max Martin and Kevin Grady have put it on the ground several times already this season.
Once Hart got going, it opened up the passing game for Henne. He threw a little fade pass to Avant for the first touchdown, then hit freshman Mario Manningham on a post off of play-action for the second score. His third touchdown pass came on a dump off to a wide open FB Brian Thompson, his second receiving score in recent weeks (so you ought to, you know, cover him close to the goal line).
Overall, Henne looked much more comfortable in the pocket. His receivers dropped a couple balls, including one on a third down by the normally-reliable Avant, but Henne had a pretty good day, finishing 26-for-35, with 256 yards, three scores and an interception. He also had a fumble that you would have heard about until the end of time if Michigan had lost.
As I had speculated last week, WR Steve Breaston is hurt. He did not even make the trip because of a shoulder injury, and there’s no word on when he might be back. Manningham took his place, and was singled out for his strong route-running. It’s obviously impossible to see the downfield routes on most plays because of the camera angles used on the TV broadcast, but he got MSU corner Jaren Hayes all turned around on his touchdown reception. Manningham looks like he’ll be a good one for a while in Ann Arbor.
Another young WR, Antonio Bass made an impact on offense as well. He lined up at quarterback (as he had earlier in the year) and ran a draw play for a decent gain near the goal line.
TE Tim Massaquoi played some as he continues to recover from a broken wrist, but his receiving ability is limited by the cast he’s wearing.
The offensive line was pretty good all day, although the MSU defense isn’t among the stoutest in the nation. They gave up one sack, and did a pretty good job opening lanes for Hart to run through. They also seemed to get a pretty good push in a lot of the short-yardage situations, although Kevin Grady got stuffed on one 3rd-and-1 play.
When MSU had the ball: The Spartans put together a pretty good day of offense, finishing with 173 yards rushing and 282 passing, for a total of 455.
Still, we did not see what many people expected—a mobile quarterback gashing through the maize and blue. In fact, QB Drew Stanton did not run the ball very much at all, likely as part of the MSU coaches’ attempt to keep him healthy. When he did run it, he finished with a total of zero yards (including sacks), but had a touchdown and picked up a key first down.
RB Jason Teague averaged nine yards per carry (72 on eight rushes), and RB Jehuu Caulcrick gained about seven yards each time he touched the ball (7 rushes, 50 yards).
They were able to sustain drives against the Michigan defense, scoring touchdowns after a 10-play, 80-yard march and a 12-play, 78-yard drive.
They also went on a 17-play, 90-yard march that consumed 8:38 off the clock, but ended in a missed field goal.
Michigan also gave up a 61-yard touchdown pass on a throw-back screen, but did a decent job containing big plays otherwise.
Jim Herrmann’s defense performed respectably overall. They played back a lot, rushing three or four guys and trying to avoid big plays. That gave Stanton a ton of time to find receivers.
MSU enjoyed a lot of success with little traps and misdirection runs out of the shotgun formation, and used rollouts to get Stanton out of the pocket with varying degrees of success.
Herrmann outguessed the Spartan coaches several times, blitzing a corner or linebacker right into the spot of a rollout or run play.
DE Rondell Biggs limped off the field with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. There’s no word on how that could affect his availability.
Michigan’s special teams: The end result was good, but it wasn’t always pretty.
Garret Rivas kicked a game-winning 35-yard field goal in overtime, but pushed a potential game-winner wide right from 27 yards out late in regulation.
The media guide lists his majors as sports management and communications, but he’s apparently also a budding thespian. For the second week in a row, an opponent ended up in the same zip code as Rivas during a field goal attempt, and both times Rivas went down like he was shot, drawing a penalty. Last week, it gave him a second chance at a missed field goal. This time it was enough to give Michigan a first down and extend a drive than ended with a touchdown, making it 21-7 Wolverines.
In hockey, it’s known as diving and regarded as a cheap, unsportsmanlike thing to do. In football, it’s rewarded. Rivas is hardly the first kicker to flop like a bass, but future opponents might want to exercise a little more caution when they rush him.
The kickoff coverage was not an issue this week, largely because Ross Ryan put all but two of his kickoffs deep in the endzone, making them unreturnable.
The punt coverage team (specifically Brandon Harrison) did a great job killing a kick inside the Spartans’ 10. Harrison gained a measure of infamy when he watched a punt skip by him for a touchback earlier this year, but has turned into a solid gunner for the Wolverines.
Warrants mentioning: Michigan State did almost everything in its power, short of shaving points, to make sure Michigan won this game.
There was the bizarre and seemingly unscripted halfback pass in the red zone that was intercepted, the stupid and questionable running into the kicker penalty that handed Michigan four extra points, a holding penalty in the red zone that killed a drive and forced a field goal, an illegal formation penalty that cost them a big gain that would have put them near field goal range in the closing seconds of regulation and those two missed field goals, both of which were easily within the range of even an average D-1A kicker (23 and 37 yards). And that doesn’t even cover the parade of crucial dropped passes or the bizarre play calling (including running a stretch play to the short side of the field on 3rd-and-4 from the 6) in the red zone, where they seemed content to settle for a field goal try late in the game (which their kicker subsequently missed).
Yes, Michigan made mistakes. Rivas missed the field goal, a couple guys dropped passes and the Henne fumble/incomplete pass was a close call. But MSU shot itself in the foot over and over and over again, as they tend to do in these situations.
In the end, the game came down to MSU dominating the entire third quarter and scoring just three points (and missing a golden opportunity for more early in the fourth) and UM dominating much of the fourth quarter and scoring seven.
What does it mean?: The talk of the Motor City Bowl or a 5-6 season can probably be put to rest. But it’s also way too early for people to start getting excited about this team running the table and making a BCS bowl.
Really, Michigan is pretty much back where they started the season. Hart’s reemergence makes this a balanced and dangerous offense, but there are still questions about the defense. They’re not going to shut too many teams down, but if the offense plays like it did Saturday, they’ll win more than they lose.
Next week will be interesting. Minnesota has to rebound from their spanking in Happy Valley, and Michigan must now respond to their sudden return to respectability. That’s a game Michigan should win by a couple scores, but with this team you’re never sure.
Frankly, this team should be 5-2 when they hit the road for the next time, heading to Iowa City in three weeks.
The road to the big one
Sept. 3: Michigan 33, Northern Illinois 17
Sept. 10: Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10
Sept. 17: Michigan 55, Eastern Michigan 0
Sept. 24: Wisconsin 23, Michigan 20
Oct. 1: Michigan 34, Michigan State 31 (OT)
Oct. 8: Minnesota
Oct. 15: Penn State
Oct. 22: @ Iowa
Oct. 29: @ Northwestern
Nov. 5: Idle
Nov. 12: Indiana
Nov. 19: Ohio State
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