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October 21, 2006

Mike Hart continues to do nothing but produce

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Game Notes: Breaston picks up the slack

Michigan 20, Iowa 6 | Box score

ANN ARBOR, Mich. Michigan junior Mike Hart isn't the nation's fastest tailback.

And he certainly isn't the biggest.

But he just might be the greatest.

Hart showed off his consistency and durability once again Saturday by rushing for 126 yards 99 of them in the second half and a pair of touchdowns, as the second-ranked Wolverines defeated Iowa 20-6 at Michigan Stadium.

"I think he's a great football player," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "He's an unbelievable football player. He's one of those guys who makes everyone around him better. His teammates are inspired by him. They all want to block for him."

For the first half of the season, any debate regarding the best running back in college football centered on two names: Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe.

All that changed last week.

Peterson broke his collarbone at the end of a brilliant touchdown run against Iowa State and is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season, if he ever plays for the Sooners again. Wolfe's attempt to break Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record suffered a major blow when Western Michigan held him to 25 yards on 18 carries.

Wolfe still entered the weekend leading all rushers by more than 400 yards, but can a guy really be considered the best running back in the nation after failing to gain 1 yards per carry against a Mid-American Conference team?

If you take those two guys out of the mix, you probably have three other players vying for the title as the nation's best running back. Your opinion of where Hart ranks on that list probably depends on whether you're a Barry Sanders guy or an Emmitt Smith guy.

If you prefer running backs in the Sanders mold guys who can go the distance on any carry then you'd probably vote for Arkansas' Darren McFadden or West Virginia's Steve Slaton.

McFadden's 63-yard touchdown run against Auburn two weeks ago changed the complexion of the Southeastern Conference Western Division race. Slaton makes similar highlight-worthy breakaways just about every week.

Then again, neither of those guys is a one-man show.

McFadden gets an occasional breather from teammate Felix Jones, who actually averages more yards per carry. As good as Slaton is, West Virginia's best runner might be quarterback Pat White.

Even Rutgers sophomore Ray Rice, whose 229-yard effort in a 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh proves he also belongs in this discussion, has star fullback Brian Leonard alongside him in the backfield.

That brings us back to Hart, who relies on the same type of grind-it-out approach that made Smith the top rusher in NFL history. Each week, Hart demonstrates why he has perhaps the most appropriate name in all of college football.

"His feet never stop," Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "Once he gets in the hole, he has a lot of heart. That's his name, and he's got a lot of that. Once Mike gets in there, you have to make sure a full team tackles him, because he's going to keep going."

Hart may not possess the electrifying speed of McFadden or Slaton, but he has gained at least 91 yards in every game this season while carrying pretty much the entire weight of Michigan's running attack on his shoulders.

The 5-foot-9 junior had 31 rushing attempts Saturday and leads the nation with 214 carries this season. He was the only Michigan tailback to run the ball all day, and still got better as the game progressed.

"I always say the more carries I get, the better I am," said Hart, who has rushed for 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns this season. "You keep giving me more carries, and I'm going to get better and better every carry. And the o-line is going to do a better job blocking. It wears defenses down. I don't get worn down. I think I'm in great shape."

Hart needed that kind of durability Saturday, because he sure didn't resemble one of the nation's top running backs for much of the day. Iowa held him to 27 yards on 10 carries in the first two quarters.

The game was halfway over, but Hart wasn't even close to halfway done.

Hart showed his flair for coming up big in the second half last week by gaining 58 yards in the final 16 minutes of a 17-10 triumph over Penn State. He continued getting all the carries in the second half Saturday and finally began to wear out Iowa's defense.

He dragged defenders the last couple of yards on just about every rushing attempt. He started finding holes that he didn't find in the first half. He refused to get brought down behind the line of scrimmage.

"He is one of the best players in our conference and one of the best players that we have seen," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Hart made an impression on teammate Alan Branch, whose status as the prime run stuffer on the nation's No. 1 rushing defense makes him a bit of an expert when it comes to rating tailbacks.

"This guy's the strongest runner I've seen," Branch said. "Today he moved piles another extra three or four yards. He's a strong individual. He's got great eyes. I'd hate to be a defensive guy going against him."

As Hart got stronger, so did the rest of the offense.

He delivered a tiebreaking 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, then provided a game-clinching score from 10 yards out with 3:59 left in the game. Michigan now owns a 16-1 record when Hart rushes for at least 100 yards.

"He's the spark that ignites the flame," Branch said.

Michigan felt comfortable giving Hart the ball again and again because he never lets go of it. Hart has touched the ball 639 consecutive times without losing a fumble.

That streak almost ended Saturday.

Michigan was clinging to a 13-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Hart coughed the ball up around Iowa's 35-yard line. Iowa free safety Marcus Paschal recovered the apparent fumble to help the Hawkeyes temporarily seize the momentum.

The Wolverines regained possession after replays showed Hart's knee was down when he lost the ball. Hart capped the drive by making a nifty move past defensive end Bryan Mattison in the backfield to score his second touchdown.

Hart insisted he wasn't nervous when the officiating crew looked at the replay.

"I knew I was down on that one for a fact," Hart said. "I knew they were over there trying to find where the spot of the ball was. I really knew it wasn't a fumble. I figured they were trying to see where the ball was and if it was a first down."

Hart didn't express quite as much certainty when he was asked where he ranks among the game's best tailbacks, but his reply still reflected his unwavering self-confidence.

"That's for you all to decide," Hart said, "but I know I'm up there."

Hart makes it tougher every week for his detractors to argue otherwise.

For more coverage of Michigan, visit TheWolverine.com; for more on Iowa, visit HawkeyeReport.com.

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