Singing The Maize And Blues

Wolverines may have too much on their minds to showcase team that could have been

Jan. 1, 2008

By Carolyn Braff


Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for
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Six months ago, Michigan fans were licking their chops.


Back in August, the 2007 season was primed for greatness. In what most predicted would be the final year under head coach Lloyd Carr, the roster was stacked with star power, including a particularly dangerous offensive trio - running back Mike Hart, quarterback Chad Henne and wide receiver Mario Manningham all made repeat appearances on preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists.




But that was before disaster struck.


Disaster fog haunted Ann Arbor for two full weeks. The first wave came in from Boone, N.C., in the form of a FCS team named Appalachian State. Appy pulled off what many then called the greatest upset in college football history, beating the No. 5 Wolverines, 34-32.


That loss was bad, but the following week's 39-7 defeat by Oregon may have been even worse, since it came long before Dennis Dixon was a household name, let alone a Heisman candidate. Oregon racked up 624 yards of total offense in that game, marking one of the worst defensive performances in Michigan history.


And all of that came before Michigan lost to rival Ohio State for the fourth straight season, putting a new kind of blue alongside the Maize.


Some blamed the injury bug. Hart and Henne both missed three games this season, Henne with a knee and nagging shoulder, Hart with an ankle injury suffered on the season's first play.


"You never know what could have been if you weren't injured," said Henne, who threw for 1,565 yards and 14 touchdowns in his nine games. "We definitely haven't played our best game this year. If all are healthy, maybe we'll see the true Michigan and what it could have been for the season."


Even missing three games, Hart gained 1,232 yards rushing and scored 12 touchdowns, good enough to make him the nation's sixth-best running back. With numbers like that, the Wolverine players are not the only parties hoping Tuesday's Capital One Bowl will showcase the team that could have been.


"We would have had a different team if we would have stayed healthy," Carr said. "The guys that were a big part of the leadership of this team were never really healthy after the first game. But injuries are a part of the game."


Michigan would like injuries to not be part of this bowl game, but Carr has yet to show his cards on that front. Just days before kickoff, the injury status of both Hart and Henne remained unclear.


"I'm not going to measure it," Carr said of the health of his stars. "I don't know if they know or anybody knows. They've benefited form some rest. They'll be better. The question is how much better."


Michigan has many questions to answer, starting with whether or not they ever figured out how to defend against the spread offense.


In those losses to Appalachian State and Oregon, Michigan never found a way to stop the spread or the quarterbacks running it. That's particularly bad news when reviewing bowl opponent Florida's offense of choice - the spread - and the success with which they run it, averaging better than 43 points per game.


"I think that [Florida] reminds me a lot of Oregon [more] than anyone that we've played because they use the quarterback even more than Oregon," Carr said. 'It gets worse every time I watch [quarterback Tim Tebow]. I think he got better and stronger as the year went on. There are some things he does that you just cannot control."

Carr does not exactly exude confidence when talking about Florida, but truthfully, he reason to reel in his commentary. The nation's winningest program has lost its last four bowl games, including a 32-18 pounding by USC in last year's Rose Bowl. Plus, the Wolverines have allowed an average of 32.5 points in those four bowl losses, which does not bode particularly well for a team already struggling to find a way to slow the spread.


To make matters worse, the Wolverines have far more on their minds than injuries and spread offenses.


Carr will officially leave Michigan on Jan. 2 after 13 years at the helm. When former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez moves into the Big House, he'll be bringing lots of non-Michigan baggage with him. Along with a very un-Michigan-like spread offense, Rodriguez will be bringing in plenty of un-Michigan personnel after firing all but one of the Wolverines' current assistant coaches.


What the change will mean for the current Michigan men is anyone's guess, but some of them may not stick around to find out.


"At this time of year, players look at where they are and decide whether or not they want to transfer," Carr said. "Some people handle change, they keep going, and others worry and they have anxieties. I think the best way to deal with that is talk with the people that are going to be there and give it a chance."


Headlining the list of players who may be looking to transfer is freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett threw for 892 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions this season, but his drop-back style seems rather at odds with a spread offense.


"I have had some conversations with Ryan and his family and it's really a career decision for him," Carr said. "Sometimes a guy gets caught in a coaching change that really changes things significantly. What I advised Ryan to do when Coach Rodriguez was named was to sit down and talk with him and don't read all that's out there. Those decisions are based on what [Rodriguez] has to say and that way you can make a good decision."


Mallett is certainly not the only player anxious about the incumbent system overhaul, but the players are doing their best to put those questions behind them and focus on more pressing ones involving Heisman-winning quarterbacks and spread offenses from Gainesville.


"[The coaching change] has been a distraction," Henne said, "but we're down here, we're away from everything, and we can finally get our minds back on the game."


Or can they?


If Michigan can stop worrying about its future long enough to look into its past for a moment, the Wolverines may find a glimmer of hope - the last time Michigan won a bowl game was Jan. 1, 2003, an Outback Bowl victory over the University of Florida.