When Michigan quarterback Chad Henne lines up over center and faces the Ohio State defense for the first time in a year, he will notice something different. Something subtle, but definitely different about those linebackers staring him down from just a few yards away.
Last year, those three guys had a lot shorter hair.
But 12 months after A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel helped frustrate Henne and dispatch the Wolverines 37-21 in Ohio Stadium, they will be here on Henne's home turf, with the same skills and tenacity, prepared to do it again. Only this time with significantly more extensive coiffures.
Well before the start of the 2005 season, the three Ohio State senior linebackers made a pact to grow their hair long as a tribute to Pat Tillman, the former NFL star who, inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave up the wealth and the spotlight of life as a pro football player and joined the elite Army Rangers. Tillman was killed in 2004 while on duty in Afghanistan.
Tillman, who wore his hair long while he was a player with a reputation as a hard-hitter and a hard worker, was a former walk-on at Arizona State who ended up being the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. The Ohio State trio read his story in the Winner's Manual, a handbook they received from Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
"Pat Tillman played football the way the game is supposed to be played," Hawk said. "Since we wanted to pattern our approach to the game after his, we thought this would be a neat thing to do to kind of honor him and everything he stood for."
Hawk, Carpenter and Schlegel, with those long strands of hair bouncing around at shoulder length, have been the scourge of the Big Ten, and the heart of the OSU defense. Hawk leads the Buckeyes with 102 tackles, while Schlegel is second with 65 and Carpenter has 49 with a team-high eight sacks. They share a motor that never stops running.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is aware that both Hawk and Carpenter are projected as high picks in the next NFL draft, while Schlegel would be an All-Big Ten candidate were it not for his outstanding teammates. Carr knows the sophomore Henne will need some security to keep Ohio State's three senior linebackers off him.
"They have got wonderful athletes and guys at linebacker that can blitz very effectively," Carr said. "They play coverage very well, and they also zone blitz you as well as anybody. I think you certainly have to be able to protect the passer, because, if you can't, then it doesn't matter what the receivers are doing or what the quarterback is doing."
Henne said he expects pressure from both the fans and the Buckeyes defenders since this game carries such significance, but he is confident the Wolverines have a game plan that will work, if properly executed.
"I'm sure people are going to put pressure on us and decide whether this team is as good as it was expected to be just based on this game," Henne said. "But we just have to come out and play our game, and just do the right things."
Schlegel, a transfer to Ohio State from Air Force who is making his first trip to Michigan Stadium,said the Buckeyes' defense has to force Henne and Michigan to turn the ball over.
"Really, the game boils down to who wants it more and who is going to be more physical," Schlegel said. "You've got to have ball security and you have to get turnovers. You think that's what every game boils down to, but more so in this game."
Carpenter, who will move to defensive end when Ohio State puts an extra defensive back on the field in passing situations, said Michigan presents a number of offensive options that will test the Buckeyes. Henne has a dangerous deep threat in wide receiver Steve Breaston, and a difficult to track down running back in Mike Hart.
"They do a lot of things and they do them well," he said. "Henne's got another year of experience and maturity back there, and he's got good running backs behind him and outstanding wide receivers to throw to. They mix it up, so you have to be active and you can't focus on any one aspect."
Henne, who has thrown for 2,033 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, had great numbers in last year's loss to the Buckeyes with 328 yards passing on a 27-of-54 performance, good for two touchdowns. The sophomore from Pennsylvania said the Wolverines have weathered a number of injuries on offense while winning their last four in a row.
"When everybody is on the right page and we're making plays and we're scoring in the red zone, it really shows how our offense is coming along," Henne said. "We know that some of the players aren't in that might be in, but whoever is in, we support them."
Carr hopes Henne, a finally healthy Hart, and the rest of his offensive cast can be efficient and effective against that trio of outstanding linebackers, and the Big Ten's top defense.
"We've played against some outstanding defenses, and yet I think this defense from an experience standpoint and from the standpoint of having almost every starter back, that makes it special," Carr said. "I think when you look at statistically- those defensive statistics - scoring defense, defense against the run, total defense, I think it's the best defense we have played against."
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