For a team that so much was expected out of, being unranked six weeks in is not what the Wolverines had in mind. I believe the phrase "national championship run" was mixed into conversation among the Michigan faithful the way olive oil is mixed in to cover a bad Italian dinner. Unfortunately all the olive oil in the world couldn't mask the rancid taste of Michigan's early season losses.
After two games Michigan had lost its starting QB, its passing game, any hope that the defense would ever defend a mobile quarterback, a tight end, a linebacker or two, its starting right guard, and national respect. Subpar efforts were displayed by one of Michigan's biggest stars. Discipline and fumble problems kept Michigan's talented backup running backs on the bench. Confusion in the secondary didn't solely exist on the field, and lead to a DB's dismissal from the team. All was not right in Mudville, because no matter how hard Mighty Casey swung his bat or churned his preposterously strong legs toward the endzone, Michigan had struck out twice in a row.
However, four games later a different picture emerges. Instead of buried in ESPN's Bottom 10, Michigan sits just outside the top 25. The Wolverines sport a four game win streak and as much momentum going into the stretch run as anyone in the Conference, save Ohio State. Much of the improvement can be traced to improved defensive efforts, the steady hand Ryan Mallett displayed in Henne's stead, Henne's return, Mike Hart, Adrian Arrington, and playing opponents ripe for a beating. Notre Dame was and is still cannon fodder. Penn State's mini collapse has its faithful ready to franchise the Ann Arbor Torch and Pitchfork Company in Happy Valley. Northwestern and Eastern Michigan are fairly self explanatory.
The Wolverines are also getting healthy. Well, healthier. Injuries to starting middle linebacker John Thompson and everyone who has played right guard have hindered both offense and defense. Thompson appears almost ready to return and at least Tim McAvoy will be healthy enough to start on Saturday. New leaders are emerging as well. Brandent Engelmon has proven to be a steadying force in the defensive backfield. Adrian Arrington is making the catches we all expected Manningham to make. KC Lopata is now your kicker (and is 2-2!).
Six games in there are heroes, there are goats, and there are those in between. Today I'll give you the Heroes. Tomorrow the Goats. Friday, those in between.
Here's how your heroes break down and why:
1. Mike Hart - Do I really need to explain this? Right now he's the best running back in college football and possibly the game's best player. He's turned 5 yard losses into 4 yard gains more times than I can count. With the troubles the offensive line has had this year, any other back would have nothing to show for their carries (exhibit A & B: Minor and Brown). Without Hart this team would be 2-4 and on the verge of total collapse. He is the heart and soul of this team and is the fiercest competitor I've ever seen at the college level. College football, and not just Michigan, will be the worse for wear when he departs at season's end for the pros.
2. Brandon Graham - He's only a sophomore and he's got 7 sacks on a defensive line that couldn't scare a 10 year-old kid who'd just finished watching SAW 1-3 on two hours of sleep. Healthy after being dinged prior to the season's first snap, he's earned the coaches trust and is starting to live up to his billing as "Woodley, but better." Graham is blessed with Woodley's first step but also with considerably more size. Over the last few games his emergence has made him Michigan's best defensive lineman. If he's out of the game for any reason it'd better be because he needed a second to eat the freshly torn out heart of the quarterback he'd just mauled. He is easily one of Wolverines' best defender on the season.
3. Shawn Crable - Far and away Michigan's best defensive player. Special teams mistake be damned, Crable's more than atoned for any mistakes by playing with the fearless abandon we've always loved but also with a new found intuition that makes him even more dangerous. He has an insane 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and leads the team in tackles with 43. When you consider he spent his first two games playing a hybrid DE/LB against Oregon and ASU, these numbers are even more impressive. Now that the defensive line has solidified itself a tad, look for even bigger games out of Crable.
4. Adrian Arrington - After Hart, Michigan's best and most consistent offensive player. Manningham's numbers may be a tad bit better, but there's no doubt who Henne or Mallett are looking for on third down. Arrington's routes are crisp. He's catching almost everything thrown in his zip code. He's giving everything he possibly can in every game. After Arrington's off-season of uncertainty, he's reversed the script and become a rock solid certainty on the wings. Downfield he blocks like a fullback, but with the ball in his hands he's moving like a 6'2" scatback. Hopefully Manningham's return to the line up will create even more space for them both. If that's the case, Arrington could wind up with 10 TDs by season's end.
5. Brandent Englemon - Raise your hand if going into the year you thought Englemon would be our best safety? While he says a few things I don't believe from time to time, there's no denying he's had a fairly steadying affect on the defense. After watching Stevie Brown and company do their best "dinosaurs after the comet" impression, Englemon stepped in and played solidly. He's second on the team with 40 tackles and has already posted two interceptions. Sure he's made a mistake or two, but he's been a steady tackler and brought some sanity to the backfield. He's still not the fastest guy on the planet, but both experience and persistence have made him one of our most valuable defenders.