by Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (AP) — After playing sparingly for Michigan as a backup his first two years and waiting for this virus-shortened season to start seven weeks late, Joe Milton’s time at quarterback had finally come.
The enormity of the moment hit him in the locker room, just before taking the field at Minnesota.
“I started tearing up,” Milton said. “It’s real and it’s time to prove to the world what I can do.”
Milton delivered two touchdowns and 277 total yards in an unflappable debut, and the No. 18 Wolverines trampled the No. 21 Gophers with 258 rushing yards in a 49-24 victory Saturday night.
“I felt great. I was comfortable. I didn’t panic,” said Milton, who went 15 for 22 for 225 yards and rushed eight times for 52 yards.
Zach Charbonnet burst through the middle untouched for a 70-yard score in the first quarter, the first of five rushing touchdowns that set the tone for Michigan’s dominance on offense. Donovan Jeter followed by scoring on a 15-yard scoop of an airborne fumble forced by a blitzing Michael Barrett, one of five sacks by the Wolverines.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown dialed up pressure from every direction, and Michigan’s front seven — led by defensive end Kwity Paye — was as fierce as advertised.
“I just have to be better, period,” said Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, who went 18 for 31 for 197 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Barrett added a 66-yard kickoff return to set up Milton’s scoring pass to Ben Mason that capped a 21-point first quarter.
“I really trusted in our team. I believe in them in that way,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s the way I visualized this game to happen.”
The Wolverines averaged 8.6 yards per play.
“Our team is a ticking time bomb. You never know whenever a big play can happen, either offensively or defensively,” Barrett said. “We just have a lot of guys that have that ‘it’ factor.”
With the Wolverines leading 28-17 late in the second quarter, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck ordered a fake punt on fourth-and-4 at their own 31, an obvious sign of how overwhelmed their defense was. Tight end Ko Kieft, who had given the Gophers a 7-0 lead with a touchdown catch, took the snap as the upback but was stuffed for a 2-yard loss.
“We had a really good look for it,” Fleck said.
Hassan Haskins rushed six times for 82 yards and two touchdowns for the Wolverines, whose only obvious mistakes were on special teams — allowing a blocked punt in the first quarter and three missed field goals by Jake Moody.
“We know we’re much better than what we showed,” said Gophers linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin.
Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns for the Gophers, who hosted a nearly-empty stadium with the Big Ten starting under strict health protocols during the pandemic. Only family members of players and staff, less than 1,000, were distanced throughout the lower bowl.
“At first it was weird with there not being fans, but once we got out there flying around, hitting around and the game started and we were actually going, it felt the same as it always had,” Michigan linebacker Joe Ross said.
The Wolverines improved to 13-2 in their last 15 conference openers. They have not lost at Minnesota for the Little Brown Jug since 1977. The Gophers last hoisted that trophy in 2014.
The Gophers played without two starting offensive linemen, right tackle Daniel Faalele and right guard Curtis Dunlap. Dunlap had a cast on his left foot. Positive COVID-19 tests depleted their specialists, Fleck said, with punter Mark Crawford, kicker Michael Lantz and kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse all held out. Brock Walker handled field goals and extra points, but his recent recovery from hernia surgery forced him to pooch kick all of the kickoffs, which aided Barrett’s 66-yard return.
The Big Ten assigned the first all-Black officiating crew in the history of the major five conferences, with referee Larry Smith leading the group of eight on-field officials and four others with off-the-field responsibilities. The Big Ten, which launched a series of league-wide social justice initiatives this week, said 22% of its 2020 officiating staff is either minorities or women.
The Wolverines ought to move up several spots after this opening performance when the next Associated Press rankings are revealed on Sunday. Though the FBS conferences are on such different schedules and voting patterns are unpredictable, the Gophers will have a tough time staying in the Top 25. Michigan marked their fifth AP-ranked foe out of the last six opponents.
Michigan: Though the returning stable of running backs was strong with Charbonnet and Haskins, Milton took over behind a largely unproven offensive line with a young group of receivers and played with a poise well beyond his experience. The offense over six years under Harbaugh has not materialized the way the Wolverines have expected, but this was a promising start.
Minnesota: With seven regulars — including four NFL draft picks — departed from the defense that ranked third in the Big Ten and 10th in the FBS last season with an average of 306.6 yards allowed per game, this new group for the Gophers has a long way to go. Linebacker Braelen Oliver, an expected starter, suffered an unspecified injury in spring practice and did not play.
– – –
Dave Campbell is a sports reporter for The Associated Press.
Photo “Michigan Football” by Hillel Steinberg CC BY-ND 2.0.