As far as opening acts go, it was a pretty good one.
After spotting Minnesota an early 7-0 lead (courtesy of a blocked punt), Michigan bounced back and ultimately pulled away from the Gophers, coasting to a 49-24 victory in a game that was as one-sided as the final score would indicate. The Wolverines outgained the Gophers 481-326 and held a double-digit lead the entire second half. How dominant was Michigan? The blocked punt that gave Minnesota its early (and only) lead was the Wolverines’ only punt of the night.
But more than the final score or the final game stats, it was the way Michigan played that had to calm nerves in Ann Arbor. Michigan came into the season, as many teams do, with many questions. How would an almost completely new offensive line perform? How would a thin defensive front (particularly at tackle) hold up? How would a largely untested defensive backfield manage? All significant concerns, but the most pressing question for Michigan centered on the sport’s most important position, how would redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Milton perform in his first start?
If there was a story of the game, it was Milton. Milton finished with somewhat pedestrian numbers, completing 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown, but he looked comfortable in his first start – a nationally televised, prime-time road game against a ranked opponent. In fact, more than comfortable, Milton was in control the entire night. Milton proved to be up to the moment and played with a steady hand throughout the game, making few, if any, mistakes. Granted, it’s just one game, and Michigan played with the lead the majority of the night, but Milton’s performance was extremely encouraging for Michigan and its fans.
Milton may have been the biggest story of the game, but he wasn’t the only story. Another encouraging sign for Michigan was the play of its big uglies up front. Michigan sent four of the five starters on last season’s offensive line to the NFL, yet despite the turnover, confidence was high in Ann Arbor that things would be fine up front. It seemed like strange boast, particularly considering the issues Michigan has had with its offensive line over the past decade-plus, but Saturday’s performance suggested that Michigan’s confidence was well-placed. The Wolverines finished the night with 256 rushing yards on 31 carries for a robust 8.3 yards per carry average. Michigan also protected its rookie quarterback, as Milton was sacked just once and was rarely pressured.
The game also highlighted Michigan’s depth at the offensive skill positions. It’s hard to imagine spreading the wealth much better than Michigan did. In the running game, Hassan Haskins, Zach Charbonnet, Blake Corum and Chris Evans combined to rush for over 200 yards, with each getting between four and six carries. Some might call that a balanced attack.
Michigan’s depth at tailback was known, but at receiver, the situation wasn’t as certain. With the loss of Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell was the only known quantity at receiver. Bell contributed with a team-leading four receptions for 74 yards, but offensive coordinator Josh Gattis backed up his pre-season assertion that many of Michigan’s young receivers were capable of contributing this season, as eight players split 11 receptions for an additional 151 yards. Included in that group were true freshmen Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning and Corum. “Speed in Space” was more a slogan than an actual practice last season. Saturday’s opener provided a glimpse of what Gattis’ system could look like in season two.
Saturday’s game didn’t erase all of Michigan’s concerns. While Michigan’s pass rush was a thorn in Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan’s side all night, the Gophers had success on the ground, particularly junior tailback Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 140 yards on 26 carries. Ibrahim is a tough out, having rushing for 1,100 yards as a freshman, but defensive tackle was one of Michigan’s biggest concerns coming into the season and Saturday’s performance did little to quell that concern.
Another concern for Michigan’s was its defensive backfield, where the Wolverines are essentially breaking in two new starters. Opening the season facing the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year Rashod Bateman only heightened that concern. Michigan’s new cornerbacks, however, acquitted themselves quite well. Gemon Green, in particular, played well in his first extensive action. It’s not as if Michigan completely shut down Bateman, the senior had nine receptions for 101 yards, but it was a quiet nine receptions for 101 yards, and Bateman never came close to taking over the game, which was the fear on the Michigan sidelines.
It’s just one game, but after a long and unrestful summer, it was about as good a start as Michigan could hope for. A start that would only get better with a strong performance next week against Michigan State.