- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 2 Notre Dame looks like a prime Hart-attack candidate.

The bulk of the hype heading into today’s matchup between the Irish and No. 11 Michigan has been focused on Notre Dame Heisman favorite Brady Quinn and second-year Irish coach Charlie Weis, the platinum pair responsible for returning the golden domers to national prominence.

But while head-swelling talk of bronze statues and title runs exploded around South Bend after Notre Dame’s 41-17 rout of Penn State last week, the maize and blue marched quietly into town with a forgotten phenom of their own in tow: junior tailback Mike Hart.

Two years ago, Hart obliterated the freshman rushing record at Michigan (1,455 yards) in just 10 starts, joining Southern Cal’s titan tandem (Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush) and Oklahoma freshman sensation Adrian Peterson as the talk of the college football world.

Given such an auspicious start, a fitting sophomore encore was expected from Hart. But early in the first quarter of Michigan’s second game last season, against these same Irish, the 5-foot-9, 196-pound tailback hopped off the field after pulling a hamstring. Hart never returned to the game, stewing on the bench during Notre Dame’s 17-10 victory. And neither he nor the Wolverines were ever the same last season, as a limited Hart gimped to just 662 rushing yards, and Michigan finished with its first five-loss season (7-5) in more than two decades.

“I am happy that I have gotten over it and am looking forward to this year’s game,” Hart said earlier this week. “It was hard.”

The hardest thing was listening to the critics claim the injury was inevitable for a smallish back trying to power a running team through the bullish Big Ten. Hart had heard it all before.

When he showed up for the first day of practice at Onondaga Central High (Syracuse, N.Y.) as a 165-pound freshman, the head coach immediately shunted him into the secondary. After an injury to the team’s starting tailback, the coach grudgingly allowed him one series to prove himself in the backfield. He needed only one play, taking his first high school handoff 65 yards for a touchdown.

When he parlayed the opportunity into one of the most storied high school careers in history, rushing for 100 yards or more in 47 consecutive games to demolish Billy Sims’ national record (38) and establishing a national mark for career rushing touchdowns (204) while leading Onondaga to 39 straight victories and three consecutive state titles, most recruiting analysts dismissed his success as the product of suspect competition. Onondaga played Class D football, the lowest level in the state, and Hart wasn’t even the highest-ranked running back in Michigan’s 2003 recruiting class.

He wasn’t the biggest, the strongest or the fastest (4.45 40-yard dash) back on the roster as a true freshman in Ann Arbor. But he was the best. He earned the starting role in the season’s third game after David Underwood and Jerome Jackson struggled in a loss at Notre Dame and eventually nearly doubled the school’s freshman rushing record of 748 yards (Ricky Powers, 1990).

This season, he has picked up where he left off as a freshman, rushing for 262 yards on 50 carries (5.2 average) in victories over Vanderbilt and Central Michigan.

“A lot of times when you see a guy that’s like 5-9, a shade under 200 pounds, people don’t think they can run with power, that they’re just elusive,” Weis said of Hart. “The thing is, he runs with power.

“Usually, a running back is good at running either inside or outside. The great ones, [LaDainian] Tomlinson for instance, can run inside or outside. This guy can run inside and outside. You can’t give away anything with this guy, because he’s got vision, he can cut, he can catch and he’s got wheels, too. He can run.”

Nobody in the game protects the ball any better. Hart has a streak of 469 touches without losing a fumble that dates to early in his freshman year. And perhaps no tailback in the college game is any more important to the success of his team. In games in which Hart rushes for 100 or more yards, Michigan is 11-1. When he falls short of that mark, the Wolverines are just 7-7.

That’s a key stat to remember considering Notre Dame’s suspect run defense, which is giving up 138.5 rushing yards a game. The lead lining from last week’s otherwise seamless rout of Penn State is the fact that the self-destructive Nittany Lions gouged the Irish on the ground for 89 first-half rushing yards on just 12 carries (7.4 average) before the lopsided score forced them to the air.

Hart is considerably more dangerous than Penn State tailback Tony Hunt, and he’s running behind a considerably more formidable offensive line.

“I think that running back is darn good, but those guys up front have made a commitment,” Weis said of the Michigan line. “They’re just trying to smash you in the mouth. Last year, from the research, it was more like counters and powers and misdirection plays, and that’s not what you’re getting anymore. They’re lining up and saying we’re going to maul you at the line of scrimmage, and that’s what they’re doing.”

And the man behind the maulers, No. 20, finally gets another chance to prove himself against the Irish, another chance to showcase his talents and silence those who question his durability.

“The last two years I have been unfortunate against Notre Dame,” Hart said. “It’s always hard to sit out, especially against Notre Dame. … It just comes down to heart, and who wants to get that extra yard.”

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