If only the first half of the season had started this well.
After waking a 5:00am for the long drive to Ann Arbor, my friend and I arrived at Michigan stadium unsure of what we would see. The walk to the Stadium from Hill street was different Saturday morning. It was quieter. Some of the rowdiness was gone. Some of the arrogance was missing. There was an air of uncertainty floating in the ether as my friends and I walked toward the Big House.
I think it was because no one knew what to expect as we walked toward the North Gate. Would this be the team that played Notre Dame or the team that struggled against ASU, Oregon, Northwestern and Eastern? Michigan was playing better but was facing one of the Big Ten's originally "spread" offenses. A spread offense that was averaging 36.4 points and 444 yards a contest.
The "spread." Funny how that word has come to strike fear into Michigan fans. Despite the fact Michigan was playing a team that was dismantled the previous week by Ohio State, the fact the word "spread" was incorporated into describing their offense caused normally rational people to stockpile food and water in shelters 30 feet below the surface.
Then, something funny happened. That funny thing was nothing. Literally, nothing. Purdue's spread offense looked nothing like the "spread" we've been taught to fear. Instead of confusing our linebackers and exposing our DBs as crippled grandparents in rascals, Purdue's game plan seemed surprisingly well prepared for. They did nothing against the Michigan defense.
Purdue's star wideouts were blanketed by Warren and Trent. Brandon Harrison and Jamar Adams combined to snuff out any threat posed by Dorian Bryant. It was as thought this group had totally forgotten how badly it was flambe'd earlier this season. This was the Big Ten's best passing offense and Michigan was escorting them to the turf rather than the end zone. There was a brashness in the defensive backfield. Donovan Warren could be seen giving an earful to a clearly oblivious receiver on every down. The chest bumps and yells were as abundant as the hits. The confidence we all thought had been destroyed two weeks into the season was back.
With Purdue's receivers in check, the line went to work. Without a truly mobile quarterback to worry about, the middle of Michigan's defensive line teed off on Purdue's running game, limiting it to 39 yards on the ground. Terrance Taylor was dominant on Saturday, plugging the middle of the line, slicing through double teams and even notching a sack. Brandon Graham and Tim Jamison harassed Curtis Painter all day, forcing him into poor throws, onto the carpet, and onto the bench by the fourth quarter. After all was said and done, 128 of Purdue's total of 292 yards came after the score was 48-7.
Prior to Saturday, "nothing" would've been an excellent descriptor of Michigan's offense. Save Mike Hart, the Wolverine offense had been predictable, stagnant and down right boring as hell. Against Purdue nothing was the same. All the plays that you thought were dead giveaway runs were passes. The offense was unpredictable and balanced and the play calling we've longed for all season finally appeared.
Purdue stacked line against Hart early in the game. Michigan responded by doing something I haven't seen in two years, misdirection. Lining up with Manningham wide right, Michigan brought in Mondrous at full back. Mondrous began his shuffle left, sucking the safety up to the motion side of the line. Everyone in the stadium knew a run behind Jake Long was coming. And then it wasn't. Drawing back from center Henne lofted a beautiful 24 yard bomb to Manningham in the back right corner of the end zone.
After the cheers had subsided, a collective "huh?" arose among the faithful. Had something changed or was this just a cruel glimpse of what Michigan can do rather than what it would do. It turned out it was a legitimate change. The passing game set up the run. Passes and play action were called on first down rather than running into a stacked line. The result was a confused Boilermaker defense that had no idea what was coming at it after the game's second series.
This vertical attack seemed to revive Mario Manningham. Eight catches, 2 touchdowns and 147 yards later the Super Mario we all cheered the year before was back. Manningham did everything from run end arounds to steal touchdowns away from would be interceptors. After a week on the sidelines and a bed of nails in Carr's doghouse, he looked like a man breathing his first breath of fresh air after years in captivity. He gave up on nothing. He finished blocks. He made the tough catches. He was a presence to be feared at every moment. His game made everyone on the team better and opened up the defense for his compatriots.
Hart took advantage of the newfound space, racking up 102 yards on 21 carries before the half. Hart scored a pair of touchdowns, one of the spectacular variety. Running left behind Long, Kraus and Mondros, Hart pounded into the pile. Clipped by Purdue's right side of the defense, Hart landed on the back of Kraus. Rolling left to right, Hart planted his left arm before his knees could reach the turf. Holding himself aloft he allowed his feet to plant and stormed into the endzone before a stunned Purdue defense and a riotous crowd.
From that point on the game belonged to Michigan. Purdue gained only 13 yards in the second quarter and did nothing with the ball until the five minute mark of the final quarter. The only thing Purdue seemed capable of doing was injuring Michigan running backs. On Michigan's first play of the second half, after Hart was injured at the end of the first, Brandon Minor went down with an ankle injury. At that point Michigan was down to a single scholarship running back capable of playing the last half of the game.
That back was the forgotten Carlos Brown. A four star running back out of high school Brown showed tremendous promise his freshman year spring practice. He blew past defenders with speed Michigan hadn't seen in a decade. But things seemed to go backward from that point. Brown was one of three backs behind Mike Hart. His speed was so valuable that the coaching staff tried to switch him to DB, and probably as a result, he considered transferring. This season, back at running back, Brown was buried on the depth chart behind Brandon Minor after a broken hand derailed his spring. Going into Saturday, His collegiate career had consisted of 75 total yards and three fumbles. With no one else left, Brown stepped into Hart's shoes and showed us the speed and determination we'd heard so much about. Brown blazed around the right side corner from 29 yards out for his first collegiate touchdown. Minutes later he showed his determination storming into the endzone from a yard out despite getting hit two yards deep in the backfield. He finally got the opportunity he longed for. And he made the most of it.
Hart will likely be back for Saturday. He was laughing and smiling in street clothes during the second half of the game. There were no crutches. There were no grimaces. Just vintage Mike. The Mike that now leads the NCAA with 1078 yards, 159 yards ahead of his nearest rival. The Mike that should be the Heisman front runner, no matter what Matt Ryan or Andre Woodson are doing. Neither of them can do what Hart has, carry a fan base and salvage a season all thought were lost, and I'm fairly sure if Hart was asked to play quarterback he'd be better than either of them.
After the game, my friends and I remarked on the completeness of the victory. We talked about how thoroughly Michigan had won and how good the team looked. We said strange things like, "Brown didn't look too bad, I'm not as worried if Hart's out," because after Carlos' performance, there was reason for optimism. There was a discussion about the improvement of the passing defense. Of course there was also talk about not taking too much from the win. Painter wasn't a mobile guy. The linebackers were okay, but not great. What if Purdue could've actually caught the ball when they tried to throw to the middle of the field? Will Hart play? Should he be the Heisman favorite at this point? Was the offense a mirage or something we can count on? Is Manningham really back?
These were different questions than the ones we walked up talking about. But they were good questions. Questions we asked with a smile rather than a furrowed brow. We came up with answers to just about everything. Unfortunately, despite the enthusiasm and relief we felt after the win there was one question on everyone's mind that no one voiced.
Why couldn't we play that way earlier in the season?
No one had an answer. So we all filed the question away. After seven games we finally felt like we'd found the team we'd lost. And on Saturday that seemed like enough.
All photos Courtesy Amir Gamzu, ©Wolverine Photo