MINNEAPOLIS — When Michigan football's first drive was killed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the ensuing punt was blocked by Minnesota, it felt like a familiar story.
The Wolverines have started flat on the road in plenty of big games during Jim Harbaugh's tenure. Most of the times, it has cost them, too. It looked like Michigan was making the same type of mistakes to begin Saturday's season opener against the Golden Gophers.
And then Michigan flipped the script.
On the back of an offensive line and run game that took 30 carries for 258 yards and five touchdowns, the No. 17 Wolverines blew out the 21st-ranked Gophers, 49-24, after racing to an 18-point halftime lead.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Joe Milton rushes with the ball for a first down in the first half against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020. (Photo: Jesse Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)
After the early miscues, Michigan settled in and established dominance at the line of scrimmage. The offense set the pace and outgained the Gophers. And the defense made several key plays, including a sack fumble that was returned for a touchdown, to limit Minnesota's offense.
Given the success of the run game, Michigan didn't have to ask much of its new starting quarterback. But Milton played well. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown. He also had eight carries for 52 yards and one touchdown. He didn't have too many of the 'wow' plays that the Wolverines talked about during fall camp, but he didn't have any 'wow, that was bad' plays, either.
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He hit open receivers and allowed receivers to make plays after the catch. He moved the chains with his legs. And perhaps most importantly, he did not turn the ball over. It was a more-than-solid from Milton. One could argue he out-played Morgan, who had the Big Ten's second-highest passer efficiency one season ago. And if Milton builds on Saturday's performance, he could solidify a position that was considered a major question mark entering 2020.
It will help if the offensive line continues to play this well. Michigan has had some impressive performances on the ground over the past few years. This ranks up there among the best, considering the context. The Wolverines were replacing four of five starters along the offensive line. They didn't have spring practices and they had a shorter-than-usual fall camp. But this unit looked like it has been playing together for years. Michigan ran the ball at will. The Wolverines broke two explosive runs, with a 70-yard touchdown from Zach Charbonnet and a 66-yarder from Hassan Haskins in the shadow of their own end zone. Before garbage time, Michigan's run game nearly averaged 10 yards per carry. It is very difficult to lose when a team controls the line of scrimmage like that. And it might've forced the hand of Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who called an unsuccessful fake punt deep in his own territory in the second quarter and then unsuccessfully tried to convert a fourth-and-goal down 18 in the second half.
Michigan's defense didn't play a flawless game. Minnesota had four drives of greater than 70 yards and moved the ball on the ground with consistency for much of the night. Still, the Wolverines were more 'boom' than 'bust.' They tallied five sacks and eight tackles for loss, including one sequence in the fourth quarter when the defense tallied three consecutive sacks — including two straight from defensive end Kwity Paye. The first sack, from Michael Barrett, forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by defensive tackle Donovan Jeter.
Yes, the unit gave up plenty of yardage. But it came up with more than enough stops for Michigan to win comfortably. And it also kept Rashod Bateman relatively in check when the game was close. In the first half, Bateman was targeted seven times and caught six passes for just 26 yards. His biggest play through the first two quarters: Drawing a defensive pass interference penalty on safety Daxton Hill. He finish with nine catches for 101 yards, but he did not find the end zone. And then for good measure, linebacker Josh Ross picked off Morgan with roughly three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
What was especially impressive was the performance came on the road. In 2019, the Wolverines' Big Ten title hopes were extinguished away from home, first in a 35-14 drubbing at Wisconsin and then in a 28-21 nail-biter at Penn State. Michigan dug itself in a 35-0 hole in that first game and a 21-0 hole in the second. The Wolverines found themselves down seven early Saturday night — but didn't crumble. This was likely their second-toughest road game this season, after the finale at Ohio State, and Michigan answered the bell.
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