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MICHIGAN REPORT

Coming-out party came against Irish

December 31, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The simple mention of Notre Dame -- those two words -- puts a smile on Mario Manningham's face.

That game in mid-September served as a coming-out party for Michigan's sophomore receiver, an afternoon that put his name on lips across the nation.

Manningham stunned the Irish by breaking free for three touchdown catches in the first half, powering the Wolverines to an early lead that became a 47-20 victory at South Bend, Ind.

"It was just going out there and having fun," he said.

That simply, Manningham became an integral part of the No. 3 Michigan team that will face No. 8 USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"He runs good routes," USC cornerback Terrell Thomas said. "And he has a gear to pull away from defenders."

This speed complements the possession skills of fellow receiver Steve Breaston and the all-around game of Michigan's other option, Adrian Arrington.

But it is Manningham who has made most of the headlines, and his value to the offense became clear at midseason when he sat out several games because of injury. Deprived of a deep threat, Michigan's scoring dropped.

After returning for the last few weeks of the regular season, Manningham said he feels 100% for the Rose Bowl.

That means the USC defense must take care -- and pass coverage is only part of it.

Manningham, with 32 catches for 624 yards and nine touchdowns, has excelled in two ways.

First, he has shown a knack for double moves, getting the defender to commit short, then turning upfield. Second, he has broken free when the running game gets going and the defense cheats toward the line.

"When we see the safeties creep up, they're not focused on us," he said of the receivers. "That's when the big plays start."

USC defensive backs figure the solution is fairly simple.

"We have to stop the run," safety Taylor Mays said. "Then, just stay on top of him and force them to throw underneath."

*

The Wolverines held an open practice Saturday. In Michigan terms, that means allowing the media to watch stretching and a few drills before clearing the field.

Coach Lloyd Carr glanced over at reporters standing behind a barricade and quipped: "I feel like I'm at the zoo. Am I allowed to feed you?"

A few minutes later, star tailback Mike Hart dived for a pass and fell to the ground, writhing as if in pain. A teammate called for the trainer.

Carr, standing nearby, wasn't impressed.

"Get up," he said. "You're faking it."

The coach was right. It was a prank, and Hart resumed practicing.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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