EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan still has a pulse.
And more importantly a Hart, a Henne and a Manningham.
Wolverines offensive leaders Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Mario Manningham were back on the field together for the first time in weeks, and all three delivered when it mattered most in a 28-24 comeback victory over Michigan State on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
No. 1 Ohio State should be on alert. Two weeks from now at the Big House, it will not face the same Michigan team that was embarrassed by Appalachian State or trampled by Oregon. The Buckeyes will meet a confident group that has run off eight straight victories and is hell-bent on making sure OSU doesn't make a return trip to the BCS title game in January. Should the Wolverines beat Wisconsin next week and then Ohio State, beleaguered coach Lloyd Carr will be back in the Rose Bowl, leading the Big Ten champions.
Amazing. And Carr can thank his Big Three for being in this position.
"When you get down 10 points in this stadium with six minutes to go, you are up against it," Carr said. "They stayed together. They showed a real toughness and a real resilience, a real togetherness."
Henne, who said he was about 80 percent recovered from an injury to his throwing shoulder, passed for 211 yards and four touchdowns. Hart, who missed two games with an ankle injury and repeatedly had to leave Saturday's contest, rushed for 110 yards, 97 in the first half. And junior Manningham, glad to have his senior partners back, struck for 129 receiving yards and a pair of scores, including the game-winner.
Hart said he never felt the issue was in doubt.
"I knew we had Mario, we had Chad … we could throw the ball deep whenever we wanted to," he said. "So as long as we protected, I knew we had a chance to win the game.
"I was just laughing. (MSU) got excited. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you're playing basketball and let him get the lead. Then you just come back and take it back."
Little brother, a.k.a. the Spartans, rallied from an 11-point deficit at halftime to score three consecutive touchdowns and grab a 24-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
But Hart scooped up a fumble by quarterback Ryan Mallett on the ensuing possession and scampered 19 yards for a first down. That play seemed to resuscitate the sputtering Wolverines and launched the first of two game-saving scoring drives.
Henne, who was out for that play, returned and directed a 79-yard scoring drive, capped by a 14-yard TD pass to Greg Matthews to make it 24-21. He showed Peyton Manning-like poise, directing traffic at the line of scrimmage and getting his teammates' attention.
The Spartans went three and out, then Henne's heroics continued as he moved his team 65 yards on nine plays, connecting with Manningham on a third-and-12 for the winning touchdown from 31 yards out with 2:28 left. Again showing the stuff of great quarterbacks, he audibled the play call and found Manningham in stride.
"If you want to define courage, one way to do it is to mention Henne." Carr said. "This guy has been that way since the day he got here. He's never received the credit he deserved. What he did today, as a coach, I can only admire and respect and love him, just as his teammates do. He's just a guy who loves to play, loves to compete. There isn't anybody tougher than Henne."
Manningham beat MSU corner Ross Weaver on the play, outracing and outleaping him in the right corner of the end zone.
"We were saying all game that they couldn't stop Mario," Henne said. "He was beating their corner every play, that's why we took some shots deep. At the end, I just said sort of stutter that square out and go for the end zone."
Manningham's performance is proof of his maturation as a player, Carr said.
"You get open, they miss you. You get open, they don't throw it to you," Carr said. "There's a frustration level and I think he's learned to just keep playing. I thought he did that today.
"He had some big plays."
Carr punctuated that quote with a chuckle.
After the Spartans took a 3-0 lead on a 36-yard field goal by Brett Swenson at 11:28 of the first quarter, Michigan went on a five-play, 62-yard drive to take the lead. Hart came up huge, bursting through a gaping hole for a 37-yard gain that brought the ball to the Spartans' 11-yard line. Two plays later, Henne connected with Manningham in the right corner of the end zone for an 11-yard TD.
Hart set up Michigan's second touchdown in similar fashion, carrying 32 yards to the MSU 10. Henne finished the drive with a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Carson Butler at 12:46 of the second.
Michigan State showed signs it planned to make things interesting by moving 75 yards on its first possession of the second half to pull within 14-10. Jehuu Caulcrick plowed over from the 1 at 6:32 of the third and the 77,079 on hand got louder at the behest of the flashing scoreboard.
The Spartans mounted another scoring drive to end the third. Five seconds into the fourth quarter, Brian Hoyer hit Kellen Davis with a 5-yard touchdown pass and it was 17-14 MSU with the crowd going absolutely bananas.
Michigan State rode Caulcrick's legs to a 10-play, 52-yard scoring march on its next chance with the ball, Caulcrick busting over from the 1 for a 24-14 Spartan edge.
But the Sparty party was broken up by bouncers Hart, Henne and Manningham.
As thrilling as the win was for the Wolverines (8-2, 6-0 Big Ten) it was crushing for the Spartans (5-5, 1-5.) Coming off a 34-27 OT loss at Iowa, MSU outgained Michigan 352 to 311 in total offense and outrushed the Wolverines 191-100. Huge running days by Javon Ringer (128 yards) and Caulcrick (86 yards, 2 TDs) went for naught.
"Oh man, it's a tough loss," Hoyer said. "I can't even put into words how terrible it feels to lose, not only to those guys, but two weeks in a row like that. It makes you sick."
For Michigan, the sick are now well, or at least more healthy than they had been.
And that should make Ohio State a little queasy.