Hold The Line

Jake Long heard all the Appalachian State jokes. What kind of battery does it take to beat Michigan? 1-AA. Yes, he knows about the YouTube clip e-mailed all over campus ("Michigan Fans Leaving Oregon Game Earl"). And yes, he saw the SOS banners hangg from Ann Arbor storefronts: "Coach Carr, Staff, and Players&Don't Give Up! From Your Friends at Hoover Street Auto Repair"

Long knows about all of it, good and bad. But Michigan fans and foes shouldn'dt take offense if the 6'7", 315-pound tackle ignores them. It's not that he doe'nt care. He's just too busy rebuilding to respond. "Did I envision starting 02 when I'd not to enter the NFL draft? Of course not, "Long says on a late-September afternoon."But am I glad that I stayed? Without a doubt. I'm happy I'm here" When college football success boils down to BCS or bust, it takes only one loss to shove careers, fans and sponsors onto a ledge. Two losses is even worse, bringing on talk of next season'fs recruiting class, spring ball and who the new coach is going o be. So imagine the mood in Ann Arbor a couple weeks into this season, when the Big House turned into the Flop House. First came that 34-32 opening-game loss to Appalachian State. Then, a week later, the 39-7 blowout against Oregon. Suddenly, rumors began flying: Players were going to quit! Lloyd Carr was going to retire! The season was lost!

Long's response to the panic? "Trust me", he says in an easygoing tone that catches listeners off guard. "We'll be okay."

You want to believe him. The way Michigan has put itself back into position to matter this season should give fans of the Mountaineers, Sooners and Trojans hope. Because despite what you read in the polls, there is still life after loss in college football, still a chance to make dreams come true. Some dreams, anyway, which is what Long has been telling his teammates all season. He speaks in a stress-free cadence that has the power to restore calm when the world demands otherwise. His toneas much s his imposing presenceis what makes him just the 11th two-time captain in 129 years of Michigan football. He is a leader, the proverbial coach with a jersey, protecting a roster of underclassmen from the chaos that reigns just outside the locker room door. He's been teaching them to tune out the noise and have some fun, and in so doing he's been a one-man argument for bringing sanity back to major-programollege sports. After all, football's supposed to be fun, right?

"That's what Jake told me during the Oregon game", says freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was thrust into the third quarter of the rout when senior Chad Henne went down with a lower-leg injury. "I think it was 32-7, and before I could get my helment on, Jake grabbed me and said, "Don't worry, dude. You know the offense, so, we'll protect you. Have fun.' We were getting killed, and he was so calm, I coul'nt believe it. He wasn't freaking out, so I didn't."

That doesn't mean the fifth-year senior's abdomen hasn't been tied in a knot all year. Early this season, Long was ready to pluck a couple of those boobirds from Row 90 and break them in half. Having lived and died by the maize-andblue while growing up in nearby Lapeer, Mich., Long didn't plan on getting embarrassed as a player. He did not deny himself top-10 draft money, give up Taco Bell and lose 30 pounds to extend a two-game losing streak that began last November into four games, run over by Buckeyes, Trojans, whatever App State is and Ducks.

But Long asked himself a question most Michigan backers failed to: What good would it do to lose my cool? Not much, which is why he decided, after each September loss, to walk onto the practice field the following Monday and work. He knew that when his teammates saw him trying instead of crying they'd do the same. Long opened that first practice after the Oregon loss with a sermon on doing the little thingsblocking, tackling, practicing sharp, staying focused during film sessionsthat a preseason No. 5 team does automatically, but a disoriented 02 team does not. And, oh yeah, he added one other directive: Don't listen to critics who aren't playing games.

"I'm getting old," says Carr. "So I don't hear as well as I used to. I don't hear the criticism, and when I do, it doesn't bother me one bit. But it does bother 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, so they look to the leaders within the team on how to handle it. How those leaders handle it sets the tone."

Long smiles upon hearing his coach's thought. "Yeah, I'll take the bulk of the responsibility. That's my job. People expect it out of me, and I want them to. But in return I expect things from them. No panicking. No complaining. Follow me, and let's go take care of business. The best way I know how to lead is by example."

On paper, Long shares his captaincy with running back Mike Hart and linebacker Shawn Crable. But the team's most electric personalities are quick to cede authority to the guy they call the Big Man. "You watch whenever the team is together," Crable explains as his head slowly nods, re-creating the image in his mind. "We move as a pack, down the tunnel, on and off the field, all the time. Mike and I are running circles around the team, getting everybody hyped. Calling people out, singing, whatever it takes, just making noise. Jake is down there in the center, not saying a word. But when his big ol' hand comes up and that huddle forms around him, the noise stops. Everyone listens to Jake. He takes all that energy we've been building up and focuses it. Bam! Just like that."

Since Michigan's horrid start, Long has turned the left side of the line into a wasteland of flatbacked linebackers. In the stop-the-bleeding Notre Dame game, 15 of the first 21 plays from scrimmage ran squarely over Long's back. Just 15:21 into the game, the score was Wolverines 17, Irish 0. One week later, against 10th-ranked Penn State, Long put his arm around Hart and told him to follow the big maize No. 77 wherever it went. Hart rushed for 153 yards, 96 of them in Jake's wake. Final score: Michigan 14, Penn State 9. "I love it," Long says of the workload.

"Things get rolling, and we'll score, and when [guard and roommate] Adam Kraus and I get back to the bench, we'll look at each other like, Oh yeah, here we go."

Long's confidence is forged from knowing that he can steamroll Michigan down the field, but it's tempered by the realization that there are far worse fates than losing a game, or four. The summer before the 2004 season, a fire swept through his rental house. The smoke choked him awake and forced him to jump from a secondstory window onto the roof of a Ford Bronco. His escape left him hospitalized, his smoke-scarred lungs mechanically sucked clean, but he still started every game that fall. The next August his left leg was crushed by 634 pounds of linemen, a freak accident during two-a-days. Without Long, Henne was on the run, and the team dropped three of its first six games. Watching his team struggle, Long stepped up his rehab and came back in October, two months earlier than expected. He led a 68-yard scoring march against Iowa in his very first series and a game-winning TD on the last play of the night.

That's how a man earns respect, a reverence that leads to a weekly sideline scene straight from The Godfather, as teammates line up for visits between each offensive series. Center Justin Boren and right tackle Stephen Schilling, both sophomores, need to chat about handling the Irish pass rush. Mallett wants to apologize for his overexuberant touchdown celebration vs. Penn State. ("Jake said, 'Man, just hand the ball to the ref.' I was like, 'Sorry, Jake, don't hurt me.' ") Long didn't volunteer to be the team's youth counselor, but with as many as eight underclassmen lined up on offense at any given time, that's the gig.

Now, with wins over Northwestern and Eastern Michigan pushing the Wolverines' winning streak to four, the feeling of impending doom in Ann Arbor has been quelled, at least for the moment. The talk now is about hammering through a season-ending gauntlet that includes East Lansing,

Madison and a home date with Ohio State; of winning a Big Ten title; of possible redemption in the Rose Bowl. Running the table would mean running off all ghosts, not to mention definitively answering the question Long has been asked most this season: "Why did I come back? Me, Chad, Hart, Crable, I think we all had a chance to go to the NFL. But we decided to come back for our senior year because we have unfinished business. Now is the time to take care of it."

When the Wolverines rolled up to the Big House 90 minutes before their game with Notre Dame, Long was among the first to step off the bus. Lining the walkway to the Michigan locker room were nearly a hundred former Wolverines hoping to will their alma mater back to life by barking shouts of encouragement and brandishing homemade signs. The Teams of the '50s Give Their Support & Go Blue!

The Big Man never even saw them. He just marched right on by, jawbone locked and eyes straight ahead. The alumni weren't offended that he didn't react. They know he simply doesn't have the time. He's got rebuilding to do.