WHEN HART STOOD UP, THE IRISH TUMBLED OVER

When the chips are down, it’s good to take heart. But it’s better to take Hart. Or give it to Hart. You gotta have Hart. It’s all about H-

You get the point.

On an afternoon when hiking the ball was a challenge and both starting quarterbacks still remember their high school locker combinations, the most valuable everything was Michigan senior running back Mike Hart, who last week guaranteed a victory to lift his school out of the funkiest of funks.

And that was before Hart knew his quarterback wouldn’t be senior Chad Henne, but a lanky, raw freshman who could play the younger brother in a “Flipper” remake.

“Obviously (if I knew that), I wouldn’t have been that quick,” he admitted, grinning after the game. “It worked out, I guess.”

Uh, yeah. On Saturday it was Hart left, Hart right, Hart up the middle, Hart around end. He carried 26 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns. …

In the first half.

Hart was as reliable as FedEx, only faster. He finished with 35 carries, 187 yards and a 5.3-per-rush average. He was one of the few players who looked like he belonged in a Michigan-Notre Dame game. Others seemed to come from the Ice Capades.

Hart not only set the prediction and tone for this game, he set the pace. Fourteen times when he touched the ball he got a first down, moving the chains. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, Hart was the law.

He left the blowout with nearly 20 minutes to go.

If only Notre Dame were that lucky.

No thunder to shake down

Let’s talk about the Fighting Irish. Here’s all you need to know. Their backup quarterback refused to get on the bus Friday. Didn’t show up. Word is plans to transfer to Northern Illinois.

The kid may be a genius.

In therapy, when you’re feeling depressed, they tell you to find someone who has it worse than you do. There you go, Maize-and-Blue fans. You’re only mediocre. Notre Dame is miserable.

Can’t pass. Can’t block. Can’t protect. Can’t score. Can’t even hold onto the snap. Notre Dame was as weak and inept as Michigan fans have ever wished it to be. At some point in Saturday’s massacre, you actually felt sorry for the Irish, the way you eventually felt sorry for the Wicked Witch of the West when she melted into her hat.

I mean, when there’s nothing left but a green globule, how bitter can you be?

And that’s all Notre Dame is right now. Man, that is one sorry-looking football team. There is no explaining – or justifying – such a drop-off a school that can close down completely and still have a dozen All-Americas commit for next season.

Sure, Charlie Weis lost Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker and others. But departing players is no excuse in that program. Notre Dame hasn’t scored a touchdown in its three games. Its total rushing was minus-six yards Saturday. Snaps flew over heads, balls were fumbled, passes were overthrown, nobody blocked. And unlike Michigan, Weis can’t look forward to a senior returning as quarterback.

Truth be told, Appalachian State was tougher. Oregon was tougher. Spring practice may have been tougher.

The start of something Big Ten?

Which brings us back to Michigan. The Wolverines are off the schneid, and maybe angry bloggers can lower the tomahawks aimed at Lloyd Carr’s head. Carr brought actor Russell Crowe to his news conference, and Crowe called Carr a great coach. And if Cinderella Man says it, you can believe it.

But Carr only can hope the joy of Crowe’s visit and a 38-0 blowout inspires his team – because I’m not sure what the Wolverines learned from playing the Irish. You can’t count on anyone in the Big Ten playing this badly.

They did learn one thing: Hart delivers.

“I like being in the spotlight,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re in the spotlight for the right reasons now.”

We’ll see. Carr and his 1-2 team now will turn to the Big Ten season and set their sights on a new horizon. The last three weeks bought shock, tears, anger, disbelief and, finally, grins and high-fives. And if it all looked too easy on Saturday, well, count your blessings.

You could live in South Bend.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read Albom’s weekly column in Local News, turn to Page 1B.

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