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Michigan-Ohio State: Goodbye To All That

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Once certain popular tics hit such a saturation point that mainstream media is picking up on it, it's time to pull back a bit. The New York Times writes how beards are suddenly, inexpilcably'in' among some ill-defined subset of trendsetters, it's probably time to dust off the ol' straight edge (or you can do what I did when I read that story a while back: assume that by the time the New York Times identifies something as hip, it's so played it's all the way past played and back around to hip again. The Old Lady has her finger on the pulse more than you think...)

Rece Davis does this all the time, with phrases like the ridiculous "Here come the Fighting [Insert Coach's Name]s!" or "pick six," a potentially useful shorthand that, post co-option by Davis and various other Leader heads, inevitably makes any casual user sound like an obsessed frat guy going to camp outside the Bristol compound with that guy who can't get enough ESPN Mobile, hoping to touch Skip Bayless or something. This year, Davis has taken to noting certain players seem to have been in school for a long time - almost too long, "like twelve years," usually about kids who don't seem like they've been around for very long at all (Darrell Blackman?), thus forever relegating to cliché the occasional, mild humor that accompanies thoughts like,"Generations of Iowa State fans have looked to Bret Meyer for inspiration."

He gets caught, sure, but the other guy doesn't get free in the first place.
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I say all that because my first thought about Saturday's de facto Big Ten Championship in Ann Arbor is that it's Chad Henne and Mike Hart's last regular season game, and I can't think of any teammates who could be possibly be a better fit for the cliché: It really does seem like Henne and Hart have been playing at Michigan forever, almost long enough it's like they've been granted tenure, or some kind of `player emeiritus' status. This is not the case, if you were wondering - the game is littered with four-year starters, and there are more than half a dozen guys on Michigan alone that have been around longer than either Henne or Hart, including Jake Long and a bunch of scrubs you've never heard of no matter how many times you've read the entire play-by-play breakdown on MGoBlog. Four years is four years. Every senior makes it.

Then again, 2004 is a long, long time ago. I've moved an astonishing seven times between three states since the start of that football season, picked up a couple degrees, quit two jobs and recycled the same lame Halloween costume for different crowds three years in a row (although I don't think I've bought any new shirts). Three coaches in the Big Ten were fired, one retired and two died. In fact - and this is the sort of thought you have for a second and then dismiss because it can't possibly be true - the more I think about it, the harder time I have remembering any current player playing as a freshman in 2004. There are a lot of them out there, but I can only come up with a couple names - Erik Ainge, Brian Brohm, Thomas Brown - I remember actually watching then, and those only from one specific game in each case. There are a couple quarterbacks off the top of my head (Meyer, Andrew Woodson). Andre Caldwell at Florida, Xavier Adibi at Virginia Tech. Your team has no doubt had its own valuable and justly beloved figures proudly representing your school with excellence throughout George's Bush's second term.

But I can't say I necessarily remember any of those players as freshmen, not very well, not like Henne and Hart, who were almost instantly ubiquitous; none of them so quickly became the face(s) of one of the most high profile programs in the country, and none of them succeeded so spectacularly out of the gate: behind the freshman stars, the 2004 Wolverines won the Big Ten and came within a few seconds and one point of outduelling Vince Young in the Rose Bowl, where Henne threw for four touchdowns.

Michigan has played that well since (virtually the entirety of 2006) and returned to the Rose Bowl - consider: Henne has thrown a school record 84 touchdown passes, and since his first start against San Diego State, Hart has topped 90 yards in 31 of 35 games in which he's logged at least 15 carries, including every single game he's played over the last two regular seasons; he is so so slow in the open field, but there is no contemporary parallel for that level of consistency from a running back. Michigan is 36-13 in games at least one of them starts and has scored at least 17 in 45 of those games, etc. Imagine Michigan fans, following these two faces more than any others on a weekly basis for three months over four years, in the end spending the better part of a full cumulative year of their lives watching Henne and Hart grow, praying to false gods and any powerful entity who might conceivably hold vigil over their injuries, and finishing each season more and more disappointed.

Love me, America!
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Great players' legacies should be based on their entire body of work, but even if I've never spent any time in the Upper Midwest, I know enough about the gleeful antagonism between Ohio State and Michigan to know that's not exactly how it works. Saturday is the last chance the kids who started together with such promise four years ago, and have largely lived up it, have to go out alongside Lloyd Carr without the oft-referenced albatross of being the "Michigan Men" who never beat Ohio State, never won a bowl game, never won the Big Ten outright (the 2004 title was a tiebreaker situation over co-champ Iowa) and ultimately never capitalized on tthe full possibilities. Injuries, Sun Belt refs, Troy Smith, Appalachian State, and so forth. Always good, never quite good enough at the end.

Saturday's script could be more dramatic - it could be last year's Ohio State-Michigan game. Or both teams could have won last week, extending the season winning streak between them to 20 games.But is the ultimate, almost melodramatic redemption story fr the unfulfilled, ailing stars and their grizzled, maligned taskmaster in his last go-round against the persistent nemesis. This game is also, fittingly, maybe the one time Michigan has most needed both of them healthy and at their best. Hart has been considered the engine of the offense from the beginning, mainly because of what happens to it when he's out of the lineup, as he was for most of the disastrous 2005 campaign. One of the questions on Wednesday night's discussion with Football Outsiders was "Who does Michigan need more against Ohio State: Chad Henne or Mike Hart?" For most of their careers - the first 48 games, to be precise - I would have said Hart, without question. But the answer now is that the Wolverines clearly need both of them. Michigan has beaten good teams this year without Henne (Penn State) and without Hart (Illinois), but last week at Wisconsin was the first time since they stepped on campus Michigan has played with Henne and Hart both on the sideline. And it was, in all phases, a disaster. If Hart is the motor, the juice that makes the offensive pistons go, we saw in Madison that Henne is the brain, and an offense with Ryan Mallett at the helm right now is one running around with its head cut off. Henne has to play for Michigan to not lose - chances of overcoming Ohio State's defense if Mallett does anything approximating his erratic, mistake-assured horror show in the pocket last week are virtually nil -  and Hart has to play for the Wolverines to win. This is, of course, just as it should be.