Tony Ding / AP Enlarge
ANN ARBOR - Throughout his Michigan career, Mike Hart has dealt with more than a few cases of mistaken identity. First there was the time in his freshman year when some people mistook the diminutive Hart for one of the team's managers.
At maybe 5-foot-9, when measured with a generous tape and a liberal interpretation, that can happen.
Then there was the time that junior punter Zoltan Mesko arrived on campus and got his first real look at Hart, a Michigan tailback who should set the school's career rushing record this Saturday when the Wolverines play at Northwestern. As Hart carried the ball a personal record 44 times in last weekend's win over Penn State, Mesko confessed his blunder to his teammates.
"I was watching Mike out there, and telling the guys on the sideline that when I first saw Mike Hart, it was probably the worst case ever of me misjudging a book by its cover," Mesko said. "I thought he can't be anything special at that size, but every day since then he's just made me shake my head at how completely wrong I was. It is hard to comprehend what he has done in his career."
Hart has rushed for 4,334 yards and needs 139 against Northwestern to move past Michigan's current career rushing leader, Anthony Thomas, and second-place Jamie Morris. He puts on a show just about every time the Wolverines take the field.
"I spend most of my time on the sideline," Mesko said, "so I have the best seat in the house to watch Mike Hart control a football game. He is so strong and well-built, but here is this little guy running around out there, and he's making big people miss, or knocking them down. He's about the most amazing football player I've ever been around."
Hart, who leads the Big Ten and is second nationally in rushing with an average of 163.8 yards per game, has his biggest fans - literally and figuratively - up front, poking holes in the defense to provide Hart a stage.
"If people think he's not gonna be that tough to bring down because he's small, they are making a huge mistake," sophomore center Justin Boren said.
"Sometimes we'll be looking at film, and you'll see him just run right over people. He's so powerful, with such good balance, and he is such a hard worker and an intense competitor out there. In my mind, he's really everything being a Michigan man stands for."
Hart, a rare four-year starter who is averaging a Michigan record 117.1 rushing yards per game throughout his career, brushes off the personal accomplishments and directs his energy toward the team goals, which now rest primarily on winning a Big Ten championship.
Offensive lineman Stephen Schilling said there is a strong tie between this team's ultimate accomplishments and Hart's contribution.
"To be successful, we know we've got to run the football, and that means Mike out there doing what he does," Schilling said. "He's just one guy and it takes the whole team to get where we want to be, but there's probably nobody more important than Mike. He has the ability to break the other team's spirit with the way he keeps coming at them, over and over and over."
Hart goes into the Northwestern game with 897 consecutive carries without losing a fumble. He has just three fumbles in his Michigan career, and Hart's ball protection skills, his durability and his versatility continue to amaze coach Lloyd Carr.
"Mike Hart was unbelievable as a runner," Carr said about Hart's performance against Penn State. "He was equally as impressive to his teammates in pass protection. I mean, he was sensational in that area. It goes back to the kind of guy he is, the kind of player he is."
Michigan safety Jamar Adams said Hart has assumed an even larger role since senior quarterback Chad Henne has been out for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, and true freshman Ryan Mallett has been pressed into service.
"This is probably one of the most impressive performances he's put on," Adams said. "I think he's performing at a tremendous level. I see the commitment outside, not just on the field. So this is a Mike Hart who really understands that the team is putting a lot on his shoulders, and he's definitely able to carry that load."
Boren said he just appreciates being along for the ride.
"He's gonna get that record, and it will be nice to look back and say you were maybe a small part of it when Mike Hart set the Michigan career rushing record," Boren said.
"Some place like Michigan, where running the football has been a strength for so long, this is a pretty huge thing. For me, I just consider it a privilege to block for a guy like that."
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