ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The debut of the 2020 Michigan football team was certainly worth the wait Saturday, as it went into Minneapolis and dominated No. 21 Minnesota by more than three touchdowns.
Leading up to the game, the chatter surrounding the Wolverines was something like, “Who really are these guys?” The new quarterback hadn’t played any meaningful college snaps. Most of the receivers were unproven. Four O-linemen had to be replaced.
Those concerns about Michigan’s offense were addressed, and while it was far from a perfect performance, Jim Harbaugh came away feeling pretty good about his young team.
Now the question becomes: Is this any different than the last five years?
Every time Michigan plays a ranked team, the broadcast crew puts up some sort of graphic that shows a version of Harbaugh not succeeding in big games. Next time it’ll be something like, “Jim Harbaugh in ranked games on the road with kickoff times 8 p.m. or later.” You get the idea.
But to say Michigan struggles in big matchups is disingenuous. To say Harbaugh never wins those games is downright untrue.
Since Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor in 2015, Michigan has dominated too many good teams to count on one hand.
- Sept. 26, 2015: Michigan beats No. 22 BYU, 31-0.
- Oct. 10, 2015: Michigan beats No. 13 Northwestern, 38-0.
- Jan. 1, 2016: Michigan beats No. 19 Florida, 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl.
- Sept. 24, 2016: Michigan beats eventual Big Ten champ Penn State, 49-10.
- Oct. 13, 2018: Michigan beats No. 13 Wisconsin, 38-13.
- Oct. 20, 2018: Michigan beats No. 24 Michigan State, 21-7.
- Nov. 3, 2018: Michigan beats No. 14 Penn State, 42-7.
- Oct. 26, 2019: Michigan Beats No. 8 Notre Dame, 45-14.
Harbaugh also beat No. 8 Wisconsin in 2016, a ranked Florida team by 16 points to start 2017 and No. 14 Iowa in 2019. Colorado won 10 games in 2016 -- Michigan beat the Buffaloes by 17.
There’s only one team that consistently beats Michigan in the Big Ten, and that’s Ohio State. So even though the Wolverines looked excellent this weekend, how do we tell if they’re actually different, or if we’re just hurling toward another highly ranked beatdown in Columbus?
As is often the case in college football, the first thing that comes to mind is quarterback play.
Joe Milton wasn’t asked to do anything spectacular in his first game as the leader of Michigan’s offense. The conditions were set up perfectly for him to succeed: excellent protection from his offensive line and support from the running game.
But whatever Josh Gattis did ask him to did, he executed almost flawlessly. Milton was unexciting in a good way: making the simple check-down pass to Ben Mason near the goal line or to Erick All in the flat because they had room to run; waiting patiently behind a blocker to pick his way for an eight-yard gain on the ground.
There wasn’t a single moment when it looked like Milton got away with what should have been an interception. He carried the ball seven times without a fumble.
Milton only took a couple of deep shots down the field, but that’s because he really didn’t have to. When he did, they were low-risk throws in moments where the offense could afford an incompletion. He made the appropriate short passes that kept Michigan on schedule. He hit receivers in stride over the middle so they could utilize their speed after the catch.
Most importantly, he was constantly in control of the Michigan offense as it scored touchdown after touchdown and sucked the life out of a Minnesota team that came in riding the highs of an 11-2 season.
Michigan has had some decent quarterback play under Harbaugh, but it looks like Milton could provide more than that. It’s too early to say he’ll break the Big Ten title drought, or even that he’s a definitive upgrade over Shea Patterson -- but Saturday was very encouraging, and the sky is the limit for such a smart, composed player with his talent under center.
There’s still a long road ahead for this Michigan team. An in-state rivalry is next, followed by what’s already proven to be a dangerous contest at Indiana. Then, a five-week stretch that includes Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State.
Harbaugh had to win this first game with how the rest of the schedule stands, and Michigan came through emphatically. Now we’ll see if this is the group that can finally turn that early success into something special.