COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -The only time little big-man Michael Hart has come up small during his three years at Michigan has been against Ohio State.

The 5-foot-9 Hart is the nation’s sixth-leading rusher, and his return to good health is a huge reason No. 2 Michigan is unbeaten and playing for a spot in the national title game Saturday against top-ranked Ohio State.

But the last two seasons, Hart has managed a total of 76 yards rushing against the Buckeyes – and the Wolverines lost both games. The Buckeyes know if they want to make it three in a row against their archrival from the Big Ten, stuffing Hart again is essential.

“You have to stop the run first against a team like Michigan,” Ohio State defensive end Jay Richardson said. “You have to stop Hart.”

Cornerback Brandon Mitchell called Hart the best back Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) has faced this year, which is something considering Northern Illinois’ Garrett Wolfe rushed for 171 yards in the opener.

“His ability to break tackles and just run people over is amazing,” Mitchell said of the 198-pound Hart. “He doesn’t turn the ball over at all and that’s pretty incredible to me. We know he’s unlike anyone we’ve ever faced.”

Hart, who wasn’t made available for interviews this week, was injured most of last season and missed the two games before Ohio State’s last-minute 25-21 comeback win at Michigan Stadium.

Quarterback Chad Henne said Hart can’t be judged by his numbers when he was hurting.

“Definitely, health is a big issue for him,” Henne said. “He’s reading cuts very well and reading off the linemen. Especially in the passing game, he’s tremendous. He understands, he sees rotation with the safeties. He understands where some of the blitzes are. So he’s become more of a knowledgeable player this year.”

Even though Ohio State has shut Hart down twice, there are some new wrinkles to the Wolverines’ offense this year.

Michigan (11-0, 7-0) has switched to a zone-blocking scheme, which prevents defenses from firing through gaps to make a tackle. A split-second delay means that the shifty Hart can flow along the line and then bounce to another hole while hiding behind his massive linemen.

“First of all, they probably can’t see him behind me so that’s key right there,” said Michigan right tackle Rueben Riley, all of 6-4 and 305 pounds.

The Buckeyes are anticipating having some difficulty finding Hart on running plays.

“Now you’ve got the zone scheme, which is sideline to sideline trying to get you skating and trying to get you running, and then Hart kind of cuts off anywhere he wants to,” Richardson said. “It’s a great scheme.”

The best way to beat zone blocking is to get a good rush from the defensive line, which hasn’t been a problem for the Buckeyes, who are giving up 90 a game on the ground and 7.8 points.

Similarly, no one has manhandled the Wolverines in the trenches this year, either. Hart is second in the Big Ten in rushing at 124 yards per game.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is particularly fond of his tailback, joking that when it comes to the running game “you’ve got to have Hart.”

He said he’s seen growth in the Syracuse, N.Y., native over the past two years and is hoping it continues in the biggest game of the season.

“He possesses a great competitiveness. He’s got a burning compassion to compete. When he got here and I looked at him, you know, I’m thinking, it’s going to take him a year or two to get big enough and strong enough to take the pounding,” Carr said.

Instead, Hart gained 1,455 yards as a freshman. A variety of injuries limited him to only five full games a year ago.

“The difference in Mike Hart today is that he is much stronger, and obviously he has a great ability to find a crease, a small crease, and he’s tough,” Carr said. “He seems to bleed the defense for an extra yard or two because of whatever he has inside of him.”

The Buckeyes have seen that determination.

“Mike Hart is a great back and he’s going to pose a heck of a challenge for our football team,” defensive tackle David Patterson said.

AP-ES-11-16-06 1520EST

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