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Nostalgia Series: The greatest Michigan team of the 21st century

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The defense is fabled, but let’s get offensive.

NCAA Football - Michigan vs Indiana - November 11, 2006 Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the trip back to 1973 because it’s time to go back to the future (“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads”) or at least to a more recent past.

A brief 12 years ago, Michigan possessed a dominant defense and balanced offense in one of the most talent-rich eras of Michigan football.

I will forget someone, but off the top of my head the talent impact personnel looked like this: Coach Lloyd Carr, Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch, Shawn Crable, Prescott Burgess, David Harris, Rondell Biggs, Jake Long, Mark Bihl, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston, Adrian Arrington, and even kicker Garrett Rivas was a Lou Groza finalist in 2006. Whew!

NCAA Football - Michigan vs Indiana - November 11, 2006 Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

Now, the defense has been well publicized, but in this installment I want to focus on one of my favorite offenses in Michigan history.

The season prior was very disappointing. Michigan finished the year 7-5 and lost to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. However, observant fans knew this was the rebound/rebuild season before something special and they were right. Justin Timberlake’s hit Sexyback was atop the Billboard charts from Sept. 2 to Oct. 21 and much like Mr. Timberlake’s infectious hit, Lloyd Carr brought the sexiest thing back: winning.

2006

In one season, Michigan defeated Brian Kelly (then at Central Michigan), Notre Dame, Michigan State for the fifth consecutive year, Joe Paterno, and Brady Hoke’s Ball State Cardinals. Merely typing that sentence filled me with petty inspired happiness.

Offensively, the Wolverines were led by Mike Hart (1,562 rushing yards; 14 touchdowns) and Chad Henne (2,508 passing yards; 22 touchdowns) as the two formed one of the greatest duos in Michigan history. Granted Michigan ran the ball 62 percent of the time, the balance can be seen in the season attempt totals for the two stars: Henne threw the ball 328 times and Hart ran the ball 318 times.

Michigan Wolverines v Ohio State Buckeyes Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The balance was not evident in all games (against Central Michigan: 50 rush attempts, 21 pass attempts; Indiana: 46 rushing attempts, 16 passing attempts), but coach Carr and the offense exploited defenses like a prize fighter. If a fighter covers his head, you attack the body; if the fighter protects his body, you attack the head. Go ahead, stack the box with eight, and good luck covering the receivers in single coverage.

Hart and Henne (or as I call it the “J.R. Smith Offensive”) was complemented by a plethora of talented receivers. While none broke the 1,000-yard predetermined standard for greatness, three receivers (Manningham, Breaston and Arrington) had more than 35 catches and 500 yards apiece. Collectively, this triumvirate tallied 136 catches for 1,917 yards, and 19 touchdowns.

Michigan Wolverines v Ohio State Buckeyes Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

However, the integral piece of this offense was the anchor and offensive captain, junior Jake Long. Arguably the greatest tackle in Michigan history, Long stood 6-foot-7, 300 and nasty, with strong hands, quick feet and an unmatched motor. Without Long, this season is not possible.

The Game of the Century

For the first time in college football history, Michigan and Ohio State faced off as the top two ranked teams in the country. (As a preface of pain, Happy Feet being the No. 1 movie in America this weekend was only the second saddest event to occur.)

Michigan outscored the Buckeyes 25-14 in the second half, but that wasn’t enough to overcome their 28-14 first half deficit. Much like ‘73, the Wolverines didn’t do enough early on to claim victory, as eventual Heisman-winner Troy Smith and the Buckeyes racked up 503 total yards of offense. Ouch.

The only relatively good thing to come from this game was this video, which I watch every season in preparation for The Game:

Aftermath

The BCS system was still in place in 2006 and the Wolverines were relegated to the Rose Bowl. An uninspired performance saw them fall to Pete Carroll and USC, 32-18.

The Wolverines had gone from 10-0 and on the precipice of all-time greatness to an eventual four game losing streak that would span from Nov. 18, 2006 through the second week of the following season, including the infamous 2007 season opener.

‘The Michigan Look’

The 2006 defense was replicated and arguably bested by the 2016 unit, however, no team has been able to match this offense. 2007 was close, but felt like a hit TV show with its glory days in the rearview, running on fumes in later seasons; it just wasn’t the same.

When you think of “traditional Michigan,” 2006 epitomizes this idealization on both sides of the ball. Michigan has been a prisoner of inconsistency the last 12 years, but maybe the blueprint for escape lies in previous glory.

Ohio State v Michigan

I asked my colleague Jared Stormer to share his thoughts on 2018’s perceived influence from 2006:

For better or worse, Michigan football has always seemed to have an intended identity, save for a few random, yet entertaining years spent under Rich Rodriguez. If you had to come up with an example of what this identity looked like, a good place to start would be the 2006 offense.

Led by household names such as Henne, Hart, Manningham and Long, the ‘06 offense was the prototype for what a Michigan offense should look like, and that remains true with Jim Harbaugh at the reins. Now, Harbaugh runs a far more complicated version of the pro style system, employing an almost absurd amount of blocking schemes, but the basic blueprint remains the same.

Michigan wants to run the ball. In ‘06, Lloyd Carr’s offense ran the ball 62 percent of the time to a tune of 2,295 yards. They were stout at the point of attack, and wore teams down with grueling offensive line play led by an All-American left tackle. Chad Henne was a tall pocket passer with above average decision making and the ability to utilize play action and get the ball to this playmakers. Their wideouts were athletic enough to challenge any secondary in the country. If this sounds familiar, that is by design. The thing is, that outside of the offensive line, this ‘18 team may actually be more talented position by position than that ‘06 team, and that could be a scary thought for opposing defenses.

It remains to be seen if Michigan can capitalize on their accumulation of talent, but the potential and blueprint are as evident as ever.